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Last week, many of us read about an(other) example of racism among law professors when Georgetown Law School terminated adjunct professor Sandra A. Sellers following the release of a recorded conversation with a colleague in which she expressed “angst” that every semester “a lot of my lower ones are Blacks,” presumably referring to students at the bottom of her class. Sellers acknowledged that sometimes she can “get some really good ones,” but she lamented that “there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom.”

While the phrase that instantly jumps out to most of us with even a modicum of racial awareness is Sellers’s use of “Blacks,” turning what should be an adjective into a noun, the more revealing part of the quote is more subtle -- and more insidious. That is where Sellers describes those anomalous high-performing Black students, in contrast with what appears to be her norm: Black students at the bottom of her class. This calls for a deeper exploration of how implicit bias plays out in our teaching and evaluation of our students and what we as law faculty -- and, in fact, faculty in other disciplines, as well -- can do to mitigate our own bias when interacting with underrepresented students in our classrooms.

In my article “Better Than Our Biases: Using Psychological Research to Inform Our Approach to Inclusive, Effective Feedback,” I describe how clinical law faculty can examine their biases, consider how those biases shape the experiences of underrepresented students in law schools, particularly Black students, and take active steps to mitigate those biases in their classrooms. While the article is focused on clinical, externship and legal writing faculty, the lessons and techniques in the article apply to anyone who interacts closely with students. Many of the lessons apply directly to the Sandra Sellers situation and are worth discussing here.

First is the fact that law professors, like many others, have bias. Law professors are teachers, academics and judges -- all of whom have been studied extensively and found to harbor racial bias. We may believe we do not harbor stereotypes or negative attitudes about any of our students. After all, we are in the justice business -- not to mention the logic and reason business -- and bias has no place in our profession.

Ironically, however, this “expertise” may make us more likely to be biased; people who profess egalitarian viewpoints are less likely to be aware of their own implicit biases and therefore less likely to take steps to mitigate them. That is what we saw play out in Sellers’s conversation with her colleague: she expresses “angst” that her Black students are underperforming, voicing an outward expression of egalitarian ideals, but she admits to placing them at the bottom of her class regardless.

Second, law professors are just as likely as any person to exhibit cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias. Sellers’s comments are a textbook case of confirmation bias: because Sellers’s bias classifies Black students as more likely to be at the bottom of the class, any less-than-stellar interaction confirms that bias -- about that student and about Black students in general.

Such bias can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a biased instructor has low expectations for a student, that belief shapes the instructor’s behavior, from their willingness to be as rigorous with that student during in-class discussion to the body language they use when interacting with them. It may also affect the professor’s willingness to spend extra effort helping the student achieve a breakthrough in one-on-one teaching opportunities such as office hours.

An instructor’s bias, therefore, has a real effect on their students’ achievement. Moreover, the stress that accompanies being in a hostile learning environment with a biased instructor can lead to reduced student well-being in addition to lower performance, particularly among Black students. It is easy to see the effect this has: legal scholarship is replete with studies documenting how students of color have a degraded law school experience, both inside and outside the classroom, in comparison to their white counterparts.

Third, all law professors have an obligation to take affirmative steps to acknowledge and mitigate their biases to avoid perpetuating the harm that law school and other areas of our institutions cause to Black and other underrepresented students. We, as well as professors in other disciplines, can do that in a number of ways.

The first is to commit to deep and sustained antibias work. A one-day or one-weekend training will not create the kind of fundamental change necessary to counteract the harmful stereotypes and negative associations that we as faculty -- and as American adults -- are bombarded with by a white supremacist culture. But training is a step in the right direction, as is exposure to positive exemplars of diversity inside our classrooms.

Cultivating a growth mind-set is another great way to address achievement gaps in our classrooms. In one study, racial achievement gaps in courses taught by more fixed-mind-set faculty were twice as large as the achievement gaps in courses taught by more growth-mind-set faculty. Faculty mind-set beliefs predicted student achievement and motivation above and beyond any other faculty characteristic, including their gender, race/ethnicity, age, teaching experience or tenure status.

Other techniques to mitigate bias include mindfulness meditation, which reduces the stress in interracial interactions that can lead to biased behavior, and reducing cognitive fatigue. Biases are more likely to manifest when a person is cognitively fatigued, so minimizing stress, maximizing sleep and even eating a snack can help us be less biased toward our students.

Finally, using evaluation rubrics is also vital for unbiased evaluations of our students. Without the structure of a grading rubric, we are more likely to rely on gender, race and other stereotypes when making decisions, instead of thoughtfully constructing assessments using agreed-upon processes and criteria that are consistently applied.

At the start of the video, Sellers describes one student’s (presumably her Black student’s) answers in class as “jumbled.” Was that part of her evaluation of the student? Was it communicated to the student in the beginning? Can she describe what she meant by “jumbled,” or was it simply a way to fit her Black student into her perceived stereotype of the student’s racial group? Sellers could have checked herself, using a rubric, to ensure that she was evaluating the student fairly compared to the student’s classmates -- for example, systematically evaluating each student’s responses throughout the class and not just seizing on one answer as an excuse to confirm her expectations for how that student would perform.

A few of us may watch the Sellers video with a degree of sympathy -- particularly those who may feel that she was simply stating the reality in their own classrooms. Others may think that the Sellers situation would never happen to them, because they don’t harbor bias about their students. If you are in either one of these categories, not just the first, you must do the work required to examine whether your classroom is a place where your underrepresented students, particularly your Black students, can succeed.

If you find that some students consistently struggle in your class, consider whether you could be contributing to that lack of success through your own biases (both your implicit bias and the related confirmation bias), your failure to give the necessary support to your underrepresented students, and your lack of defined metrics for success. Whatever you do, don’t do what Sandra Sellers did: simply shake your head, lamenting that there’s nothing that can be done. Something can be done, and it’s up to us to do it.

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