Another View of Bias

William Major writes that he can't imagine punishing or rewarding a student for political reasons. But he wonders how much grades may be determined by whether professors like or dislike students.

November 17, 2008

Each semester I confront the reality that I feel a certain distaste for a few of my students. I suppose it means that I am, in fact, a biased professor.

Around this time each year, when I am buried under mounds of freshman and sophomore-level essays, when I am burdened by the single most loathsome aspect of teaching -- namely, grading -- I begin to wonder whether or how often I’ve given marks that are either undeserved or unearned simply because I happened to like a particular student. Or even more insidiously, how often -- if ever -- I knocked a few points off here and there for the opposite reason. Guilty.

But have I ever done it willfully, consciously? And by what curious dynamic do I come to like or dislike students, anyway? Just how biased am I?

Contrary to what the David Horowitzes of the world think, my peccadilloes have nothing to do with traditional politics, since I am not the least interested in the ideologies of 18-year olds -- assuming they have them. And I think it’s fair to say that most of my students would have to be mind readers to figure out my political leanings, which in fact I’m not always so sure of myself.

I am an English professor, and so my grading falls into that nebulous realm of the subjective. This is a mysterious place to many students; it is sometimes so to me. Yet we do maintain standards, and while I do my best to explain what those are, I often think that the occasional student suspects my objectivity. Indeed, such suspicions are apt. It’s very possible that a few of my students have received paper grades, for instance, based in part on some unknown quantity, such as my reading -- or misreading -- of an attitude, both positive or negative. Furthermore, I am certain that some of my own grades from college through graduate school were partially the result of how the professor felt about me as a person. I am told that for the most part I am a likable enough fellow, and I suppose my congeniality has seen me through a few tough classes. Conversely, at various times I have suffered from shyness and a lack of confidence, and I know that my reluctance to speak has been mistaken for recalcitrance in several seminar rooms.

Thinking back to my training in graduate school, I don’t recall our teaching seminar ever examining the human element. All of us went through the requisite diversity training, and as “agents of the state” (our trainer’s very words) we were highly sensitized. This was the early 1990s, after all, and I personally made sure that I never came within arm’s reach of any student. Yet our weekly teaching seminar tended to focus on nuts and bolts issues: how to run a discussion, how to come up with appropriate assignments, where to get copies made.

While therefore alerted to racism and sexism in the classroom -- to name just two examples -- I am quite sure no one ever said that I should develop a thick skin toward that student who smiles and nods during my lectures, who writes down everything I say, who comes to my office hours for extra help on papers. Why be wary of those who are doing everything right?

What if this same student comes up short? How much or how often should I reward strong effort and positive attitude? How far, if any, do I extend the proverbial “benefit of the doubt”? Half a letter grade? More? Less? What if that student is physically attractive? What if we happen to be fans of the same sports team? Like the same music? What if the student reminds me of myself?

I know from having spoken about this type of bias with a few close friends that I am not the only one who has felt a slight tug, who is tempted to fudge. I do my best to remain above it all, but I know that my impulse toward objectivity and the highest standards of professionalism has fallen short. I have no data to support this suspicion. It’s just, well, there’s something about being human.

As a sophomore, I learned from the young woman sitting next to me that our literature professor once changed her grade in a course she had taken with him previously. He did so, she happily informed me, because she cried when they met in his office. That’s it. She seemed proud of this accomplishment, and in fact she decided that he might make an easy mark. This explained her presence in his class again. In our professor’s defense, he appeared professional in every sense, old school: He wore ties, referred to us as “Mr.” and “Ms.,” and, to be sure, his classroom manner suggested an all-around intimidating personage. He once cursed us for not having completed a reading assignment. And yet in this instance -- and probably others -- he was apparently moved. Though by what?

The fact that she was an attractive undergrad in tears? Did a small voice, cleverly planted, tell him that maybe he had been a little too harsh? I wonder whether he would have changed her grade, for instance, if she had been male. If she had been an athlete. If she had acne or was overweight. Would he have done it if she were black?

As a novice graduate assistant, my first experience with a student who asked me to reconsider her final grade was mostly unpleasant. Her C+ in freshman composition would keep her out of nursing school, she told me. There were tears. It was going to be my fault that her future was ruined. I was unmoved. Like most beginning teachers, I overvalued my power. Here are the numbers; see for yourself. They don’t add up to a B-. Nothing to be done. More tears and yelling. That was that.

I might rethink that grade today, 15 years later. If she seemed generally interested in the class, participated, made an effort, she could be a candidate for that benefit of the doubt. Or maybe not. Things get slippery, and other than the fiction of complete objectivity, there is no relevant guide (that I am aware of) save for the numbers themselves and my overall view of how the student did in class. But these numbers are terribly unreliable, because they ultimately come from me, from my fallible judgment, a judgment further compromised by my being modestly swayed by other factors.

The difference between a C+ and a B- is miniscule, after all, and I make mistakes. With different luck, our C+ student might have received an A from another professor. I may have misread one of her papers, ignored the thesis when it was blatantly obvious. I may have been mad at my girlfriend when I graded her final essay. I may, in fact, have remembered the time her beeper went off in class, or the day that she and her neighbor wouldn’t stop talking to each other. Any number of scenarios -- some in my control, some not -- could account for that grade.

Not long after that incident I was working with my mentor in an upper-level American literature course with about 60 students. One young woman made a habit of falling asleep in class. She sat in the first row, so she couldn’t hide. I made a mental note of it. When it came time to grade her work, I decided that I was going to look at it very closely. She would have to pay. Here’s the thing: she was a brilliant writer. She did very solid work. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. She ended up visiting me once or twice during office hours to talk about her papers. This student was smart, attractive, and sleepy. One fine spring day we ended up sharing a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream on Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington, Indiana, and she received an A for the course.

I recently gave another C+ to an intelligent, hard working student who wants to become a teacher. Tall, willowy, brunette, on several occasions she dropped by during my office hours to talk about her work. We developed a professional rapport. She floated the possibly of becoming an English major. She sometimes participated in class, asked perspicacious questions, occasionally helped other students articulate their ideas. The best student I have ever had? Perhaps not, but solid. To my chagrin -- and, I suspect hers as well -- she bombed the final exam. The numbers said C+ for the semester.

I am an open book: I almost gave her that B-. Which got me thinking: why, when other students in roughly the same position didn’t receive the same consideration? Was it because she showed up in class and did what was asked, or because she was congenial, or because she looked good? Perhaps a combination of the three. In my defense, I know that if she had lacked the “right” work ethic and attitude or if her work had been sub-par, I wouldn’t have had this conversation with myself. I almost gave her the higher mark because, in fact, I had become friendly with her, superficially, and I knew that she was better than a C+. I liked her as a person and I respected her work.

As for those students who simply annoy us, for instance, or whose presence in our classrooms are anathema, we might want to pause before payback time at the end of the semester and ask if, despite them, their behavior has had any real effect on whether or not we were able to achieve our course objectives. We might stop to consider whether we made concerted efforts to reach those students before writing them off as morons. When I have done this, I’ve often been pleasantly surprised.

I currently have a grade-grubber in one of classes. This student can out-write most of his peers, but he’s not yet an A writer -- in my opinion. In every meeting we’ve had he makes it clear that he “must” receive an A. His papers are inconsistent -- at times solid, at others they look like first drafts. But every time I think of him I am moved to something resembling moderate disapproval. I’ve even talked to him about his obsession, and he seems to understand my point of view. He is not at all a bad person. I am grateful for his participation in class. And yet ... well ... let’s just say I wish he would drop the attitude. I feel his precious “A” slipping away.

As I said, I try to remain above it all.

Just as we need to be aware, for instance, of overt preferential or prejudicial treatment, we need to be on the alert for all feelings, good and bad, not to purge them -- I am not sure how to do this -- but to acknowledge them and make sure we understand how they influence us. Teacher: where possible, heal thyself.

There’s a great deal of discussion in academe about a perceived bias amongst the professoriate, though Horowitz is looking in the wrong place. If he and his acolytes want bias, I have no doubt that there is plenty to go around. But playing favorites has the potential to do real harm to the student, ourselves, and to an ethic of professionalism. There is the spirit of fair play, unwritten and rarely acknowledged, through which we show our students and colleagues and, most importantly, ourselves who we are and what we are about. I suppose it’s called character.

And yet, we are not robots. As we scrutinize others a little self-awareness is a good thing. So go ahead nudge that grade a little, if you must. Just be damn sure you know why you’re doing it, and to whom you are like to give offense.


William Major is associate professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford.


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