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The Overlooked Minefield

Any institutional efforts to retain BIPOC women faculty members can be nullified when teaching obstacles are allowed to run rampant, argues Chavella T. Pittman.

April 16, 2021
 
 

It has become a fashionable trend to talk about supporting Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) faculty members. How do we hire them? How do we retain them? While colleges and universities often look first to improving the campus climate or enhancing opportunities for cluster hiring, some of the biggest obstacles for retaining BIPOC occur in an area that is often overlooked: teaching.

In fact, other retention efforts can be nullified when teaching obstacles are allowed to run rampant. BIPOC women faculty members suffer from what's happening inside the classroom, in interactions with colleagues about teaching and after their classes in reviews for tenure and promotion. Teaching is a veritable minefield that is taking its toll on BIPOC women faculty and, if left unaddressed by institutions, has retention consequences.

Heavier Teaching Loads

College and university administrators can fail to retain BIPOC women by assigning them heavy teaching loads. Even without a formal overload, BIPOC women are often assigned more new course preparations and more service courses with larger enrollments. This informal or invisible teaching overload means that the “same” teaching load is experienced quite differently.

Imagine the teaching load of one instructor assigned all new course preparations or introductory service courses with enrollments of 150 students each. Then compare that to the teaching load of a person assigned only previously taught courses or elective courses on their own research topics with enrollments of just 15 students of fewer. If both these individuals have the “same” 2-2 (or 5-5) teaching assignment, is that really the same load? Absolutely not.

How are BIPOC faculty women supposed to publish with heavy teaching loads? The truth is that they often cannot. This unfair diversion of their time and energy away from publishing contributes to lowered productivity -- compared to white male peers -- related to the grants and publications that are the institutional currency for tenure and promotion.

Student and Colleague Resistance

Students behaving aggressively in the classroom also play a role in derailing tenure. White students disproportionately challenge the authority of BIPOC women and are twice as likely to inappropriately question them when being taught about social justice issues (e.g., systemic racism). Eric Grollman notes that “There are scholars who’ve been attacked for what they teach in the classroom” and that these experiences are not “anecdotal” or “isolated” incidents. They are unfortunately common features for these women, as evidenced by the research on their raced and gendered classroom experiences. Unfortunately, as Saida Grundy elaborates in her article “A history of white violence tells us attacks on black academics are not ending (I know because it happened to me),” BIPOC women are alert to the fact they could be next to be attacked.

Colleagues can also behave aggressively toward and interfere with the tenure of BIPOC women when it comes to teaching. These women’s transformative teaching is often in conflict with their white male colleagues’ more traditional (e.g., lecture) approaches to pedagogy. When BIPOC faculty teach about inclusive topics like race, white colleagues can antagonistically label it as marginal and illegitimate knowledge. Many BIPOC women faculty have told me of white colleagues, chairs and deans who constantly and intensely pressure them to revert to lecture-only teaching that focuses on the white male “classics.”

In a public letter, Michelle Gibbs describes such unchecked hostilities as reasons she left her institution: “There are not enough white faculty and administrators willing to publicly teach white students how to hold themselves accountable for their racist behavior in the classroom. This unpaid emotional labor is often left to Black and Brown faculty who recognize it, feel it, and (all alone) are left to call it out. It is exhausting work and doesn’t win us any favors with colleagues and administrators.” She isn’t alone. Undue stress results in other BIPOC women exiting higher education institutions, too. And for those who stay, such discrimination wreaks havoc on their publication productivity.

Unsound Tenure and Promotion Practices

Student and colleague resistance to BIPOC women’s classroom authority, pedagogy and content is not without consequence. It can significantly impact tenure and promotion reviews through practices that are common but not methodologically sound. Let’s focus on two of those practices: the incorrect use of student evaluations and flawed teaching observation processes.

Colleges and universities often contribute to the demise of BIPOC faculty retention by using student evaluations in incredibly incorrect ways in reviews. For starters, many misuse the student evaluation data by using the mean score, focusing on outlier comments and comparing faculty to one another. Additionally, many improperly use the student evaluations as the primary or only measurement of teaching quality. Those practices don’t adhere to the general guidance about interpreting such data and evaluating teaching, and they result in inaccurate conclusions about teaching quality in reviews.

Arriving at unfounded conclusions about teaching quality is problematic for “normal” contexts. Yet it is even more problematic when reviewing the teaching of BIPOC women. Instead of presenting a sound view of teaching quality, these practices amplify the raced and gendered biases frequently found in student evaluations. And then colleagues, chairs and deans turn around and use these inaccurate and unsupported claims of poor teaching quality to deny the tenure and promotion of BIPOC women.

The flawed teaching observations of many colleges and universities also have a direct impact on tenure and promotion decisions. Does the following sound familiar? A faculty member is “informed” that “someone” will be observing their teaching, and it happens with no/minimal discussion about the nature or focus of the observation. None of these features aligns with appropriate teaching observation practices.

Here’s why it matters. A Black woman faculty member recounted to me the damage that was done to her tenure review because of a teaching observation. In her colleague’s written observation report, he accused her of teaching controversial content, going so far as to say that he (a white male) would feel unwelcome as a student in her classroom. What was she teaching? Her scholarly expertise on structural racism. Let’s be clear: the observer did not report witnessing actual student discomfort. In fact, the Black woman faculty member won a teaching award shortly afterward for which she was nominated and voted to win by the students. Instead, the colleague wrote negatively about her teaching in her tenure review because he equated his offense about the course content with an assessment of its quality. Over and over again I have heard eerily similar versions of this experience from other BIPOC faculty.

That is why it is highly recommended that teaching observations should be collaborative with at least a mutual agreement about the observer, observation goals and methods. Without that collaboration, the resulting report may reflect -- as in the above common illustration -- little more than the observer’s raced and gendered teaching preferences instead of an assessment of teaching quality. Noncollaborative teaching observation practices reproduce and codify race and gender inequality into the formal review process when these problematic observation reports are used as evidence of bad teaching to deny tenure to BIPOC women.

Conclusion

Amid renewed conversations about supporting BIPOC faculty members, few colleges and universities seem to be talking about teaching. In fact, given many people’s myopic view of obstacles for diverse faculty, a lot of people tune out at the mere mention of teaching, assuming it has no relevance to tenure at all. That is a grave mistake, as the voices of BIPOC women themselves are saying/yelling/screaming that teaching is getting in the way of their retention. When institutions ignore those voices by continuing to overlook the obstacles I’ve described in this article, they continue to penalize BIPOC women for their transformative teaching. And they continue to systematically derail their tenure through teaching.

Bio

Chavella T. Pittman is a professor of sociology at Dominican University and received a Ph.D. in sociology and a master's in higher education from the University of Michigan. Her research interests include higher education, oppression and methods/statistics. As a Black woman academic, she is a long-standing and successful protagonist in removing teaching obstacles that hinder diverse faculty success.

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