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“Block is a conceited, sanctimonious, egotistical, close-minded, arrogant, and downright rude ideologue and left-wing propagandist … That she is on your payroll at the University of California, Irvine, is disgusting,” read the 2014 student evaluation.

That comment still makes me wince. Even though the seminar’s other students were full of compliments, even though I have had thousands of positive comments on my classes over the years, I hated knowing that it would live forever in my personnel file. Because the class had been a small seminar, I could easily identify this student from his pages of feedback on, in his words, the course’s “whatever-the-hell progressive nonsense.”

That student’s vitriol stemmed as much from the course’s subject -- a history of race and sexuality -- as from my pedagogical choices. Faculty members who teach nontraditional or controversial topics or who inhabit a body that makes clear their nontraditional status regularly receive these types of comments, albeit often in more coded terms.

A growing body of research shows gender and racial biases in student evaluations of faculty. One study of online teaching masked the gender of the instructor and found that people perceived as women received lower ratings. Another identified more negative student ratings on several metrics for Black and Asian faculty than white faculty. As a result, some institutions and professional societies have questioned the use of evaluations, particularly for personnel reviews.

Serving for three years on my university’s personnel review council required that I read and assess many thousands of pages of student evaluations. Rather than highlighting the folly of using student comments in the personnel process, that experience convinced me that we can productively use those comments on their classroom experiences.

I have spent much of my career battling higher education’s shortcomings on equity and inclusion. Yet I question why there seems to be a broad coalition of support for doing away with this particular area of bias in higher education. I have not seen a similar groundswell to eliminate other biased practices, such as peer review, grant awards and letters of recommendation.

In fact, I am concerned that the effort to eliminate student evaluations as part of review processes mutes the voices of the lowest-status and often most ethnically and racially diverse members of our academic communities. Where do we think our students learned racism and sexism? Student pot, meet faculty kettle. Academic institutions have a responsibility to appropriately analyze student-generated feedback on teaching, and that involves addressing our own biases as well.

As the only regular eyes in the classroom, students have an important perspective. I have seen them reveal a professor’s too-frequent absences, incidents of sexual harassment and, far more often, an instructor’s outstanding teaching. If students repeatedly raise concerns about lack of lecture clarity or misunderstood assignments, that potential gap between teaching and learning should be a concern for individuals and institutions.

Students should not dictate how we address issues, but they can play an important role in flagging what we might need to address. We can even learn from problematic comments. I teach about sexual violence. A few students used to complain about it being “pornographic.” I heartily disagree with that characterization, but their comments taught me to better explain why I forthrightly discuss such topics.

Rethinking How We Use Student Feedback

Instead of eliminating student voices, we can rethink how we design and use student feedback. First, student evaluations must be made more useful. Having conversations with students about effective critique, bias and the purpose of evaluations can improve the quality of their comments and teach the skill of constructive feedback. Many institutions have rightly moved away from numeric evaluations toward student feedback forms that ask students to narrate experiences rather than pass unsophisticated judgments on learning effectiveness. Questions that ask about course experiences can lead to fewer personal comments than those that ask for judgment on faculty.

Second, supplemental evidence of teaching effectiveness must contextualize student comments. My own university suggests that faculty write a reflective teaching statement for their personnel file, because teachers should be learners, too. That statement can address student concerns, highlight accomplishments and explain plans for change. Structured peer review or a virtual portfolio offer other vantage points on classroom performance.

Instructors can also be encouraged to react to students’ comments and put them in context. For instance, I respond to student critiques in the margins of evaluations for my review file, highlighting successes and nondefensively pre-empting reviewers’ possible concerns. When students in a 300-person lecture kept commenting, “Your dog is really cute!” I clarified that I had put my dog’s photo on class participation cards as an added incentive to speak in the giant lecture hall. We should normalize proactive responses to student comments as part of the review process.

Third, if student comments are included in the personnel review process, evaluators must be trained to use them appropriately. That means developing a set of publicized guidelines that promote antiracist and antisexist practices, because faculty should not have to defend themselves against inappropriate comments. It also means dismissing numerical averages that have little statistical value and can encode more subtle biases, such as expecting female faculty to be more caring than men or assuming white men’s professionalism and authority. Evaluators must be made aware of such patterns and follow agreed-upon guidelines for incorporating student comments into the review process.

Indeed, many of the problems stem from how institutions might use those comments, not what students actually say. One obvious example: the current pandemic has revealed the starkly differential effects of patriarchy and white supremacy on people’s work capabilities. Institutions should proactively develop additional standards for interpreting and weighing student comments on remotely taught classes -- standards that recognize the profoundly disparate COVID-induced labor conditions under which faculty have taught.

So let’s bring as much attention to the many forms of structural discrimination that hold back women, faculty of color and other marginalized instructors as we have to critiquing student evaluations. Too many departments and administrators have woeful histories when it comes to hiring, supporting and promoting underrepresented faculty. They include some of the same people clamoring for the end of students’ evaluations, without reflecting on their own contributions to ongoing discrimination.

The discriminatory practices baked into peer review, networking and, frankly, daily life for many people at most higher education institutions need forthright attention. Institutions should have transparent standards for appropriately using student comments on their classroom experiences. We may not be medical doctors, but “physician, heal thyself” certainly applies. We can turn our critical gaze onto our own practices rather than eliminating student voices.

I cringed at that student’s diatribe -- yet I learned from it. I now speak with my students about making effective comments on teaching. And I can balance being open to feedback without seeing all complaints as reasonable.

Like many academic measures of achievement, student comments can be problematic and still serve a useful function. We would do better to forthrightly focus on mitigating racism and sexism throughout higher education than on silencing those whom we seek to educate.

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