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10 December 2020

Student Evaluations, Equity, and Advantage

I posted the following tweet this morning: 

There is an unfortunate irony to my tweet in that I am, to some extent, able to ignore my evaluations because of the advantages conveyed by my identities and tenure. Literally everything about my identity grants me structural advantage (a/k/a privilege*) relative to those with identities different from mine, and there is no way for me to opt-out of it or to compartmentalize it. On the one hand, this is unfair to me in that I will never know to what extent my successes were earned or were a product of those advantages. (Cue world's smallest violin.) More troublingly, it is unjust to those who are not like me who are less likely to have successes in the first place.

I followed up with a comment linking to the press release (9/9/19) from the American Sociological Association (ASA) on Reconsidering Student Evaluations of Teaching. I, however, don't fully agree with the ASA recommendations. Confusingly, they argue that "SETs [student evaluations of teaching] are weakly related to other measures of teaching effectiveness and student learning" and that:
A scholarly consensus has emerged that using SETs as the primary measure of teaching effectiveness in faculty review processes can systematically disadvantage faculty from marginalized groups. This can be especially consequential for contingent faculty for whom a small difference in average scores can mean the difference between contract renewal and
but then continue nonetheless with recommendations on how to include SETs as "part of a holistic assessment." If the evidence suggests that SETs are inherently inequitable, they should have no role in the faculty evaluation process. 

Imagine forcing students to wear glasses in certain professors' classes that make everything look blurry and unfocused and then asking them at the end of the semester to accurately describe the professor's physical attributes. We should not be surprised when the students are unable to give anything approaching an accurate description. Now imagine arguing that if only we asked the right questions, we would be able to suss out a fair characterization. This would be ridiculous! One cannot reconstruct data from a concept that was obstructed from the data in the first place. No, the only way to accurately measure the professor's physical attributes would be to remove the glasses from the students' eyes before taking the classes.

Likewise, I don't see a way that we can reconstruct an accurate measure of teaching effectiveness that is hopelessly clouded by culturally imposed implicit biases short of eliminating the source of these biases before students enter the classroom, which, while a worthy project, is one beyond the scope of colleges and universities working alone.

The non-expert, naive opinions of students are of little utility, regardless, but that's best saved for another blog post.


I prefer not to use the term "privilege." For a good explanation of why, see Kaufman and Schoepflin's discussion on the topic

29 November 2020

Scared off the Road

I'm a cyclist. I've been riding a road bike for about 20 years, now. I do it mostly to stay physically fit, but it also definitely helps with my mental health. I like riding alone out on rural roads. In the same way that many people have insights and find inspiration in the shower, I can easily turn off my prefrontal constraints and let my mind wander in the saddle. It's like a productive meditative state. I've had breakthroughs on the bike with songwriting and with sociological research projects. Mostly, though, it's just a way to (dis)engage in a relatively undemanding, repetitive mental/physical practice that unclutters my mind. (It turns out cranking pedals and maintaining balance is a lot like washing one's hair but lasts far longer.)

A problem, though, that I've encountered from almost the first time I went on a bike ride as an adult is that motorists regularly endanger and disrespect cyclists. While cycling is pretty safe, it can feel harrowing. What is more troubling, though, is the aftermath of those troubling encounters. When my life is threatened, I am understandably angered. Think about the times when you've been driving your car and another motorist does something stupid that could have killed you or others. You likely got mad. This is not "road rage"; it's a justifiable and natural reaction. It's only amplified when I'm on my bike because while car accidents are dangerous, as a cyclist, I have about 10% of the mass of a typical car and am protected by a helmet, not crumple zones, airbags, a seatbelt, etc. Add heightened adrenaline levels from the exercise and stress, and these emotions are exagerated. You'll forgive me for being a bit enraged when someone chooses to risk my wellbeing because they're in a hurry. When I'm behind the wheel of a car and some idiot cuts me off, I can use the horn to alert them to their mistake. There is no such mechanism on my bike so I end up yelling and, sometimes, using my middle finger.

The double-whammy of having my life endangered and then feeling irrationally guilty for the rest of my day from expressing righteous anger erases the mental and emotional benefits of cycling for me. I was stubborn enough in my youth to push past this, but now, I have changed my habits. For the last month or so, I have been riding nine laps around my 1.74-mile neighborhood loop instead of doing my typical 17-mile ride through the local countryside. It's not the same. It's better than feeling bad about getting mad, but it's still sad.

25 November 2020

COVID on Campus, a Fall 2020 Retrospective

The University System of Georgia (USG) forced faculty, staff, and students into in-person classroom instruction for the Fall 2020 semester. To my knowledge, there has been no indication that any high-level campus administrators at Georgia College (GC) raised any concerns with the Chancellor, Board of Regents, or anyone else at the USG over the wisdom of this initiative. Over the semester, I have regularly updated data visualization of my campus's COVID-19 cases. In-person classes ended yesterday (11/24). Below are those charts:

Here are some facts, findings, and dates:
  • More than 12% of students (727) taking at least one in-person course disclosed a positive COVID test during the semester.
  • 36 employees disclosed a positive COVID test during the semester.
  • The peak reporting of new cases occurred on 8/24 with 79 new cases, 16 days after students moved into on-campus housing and 12 days after classes began.
  • The peak of active infections (i.e. total cases 14-day window) occurred on 8/31 with 539 cases (9% of students [536] taking at least one in-person course), 23 days after students moved into on-campus housing and 19 days after classes began.
  • GC president, Steve Dorman, threatened students with suspension over non-compliance with university policy on 8/25.
  • GC Student Life announced the creation of a COVID CARE Response Team on 9/8.
  • GC Student Health Services began offering no-cost COVID-19 saliva tests on 9/11.
  • USG chancellor, Steve Wrigley, announced that we will "stay the course" on 9/15.
  • Under remarkably similar circumstances (i.e. 700 student cases on ~4000-student campus), SUNY-Oneonta president, Barbara Jean Morris, resigned on 10/15.

A few notes:
  • The data are primarily confirmed test results volunteered by students and employees, which means the actual numbers are certainly higher than reported.
  • At no point before or during the semester did the administration conduct any systematic contact tracing.
  • The administration neither required nor offered testing of students or employees before returning to campus for the semester.
  • 5859 students took at least one in-person course during the semester.
  • The administration published "employee" test results but did not distinguish between faculty and staff, and I have been unable to find a total count of current employees on campus.

23 November 2020

Rethinking Honors Education

My small, public liberal arts campus just transformed an honors program into an honors college, helped along with a very healthy donation from a wealthy emeritus professor. Over the years, I have taught a handful of honors sections of a frosh-level course. To be honest, they have been among the most rewarding teaching experiences of my career. They were what I imagined teaching at a liberal arts college would be. The students were enthusiastic. They wanted to be in the room. They interacted with me and with each other. They welcomed challenge--at least as much we humans can actually welcome that kind of thing. They were hardworking. Frankly, though, most of them were no more or less intelligent than their counterparts in non-honors sections, as far as I could tell. I don't have systematically-collected data to confirm this, but the honors students seemed to be disproportionately white, middle-class, and women.

I have found myself asking several questions about honors education (HE) over the years, though:

  1. What is the purpose of HE?
  2. Are honors students better off having HE?
  3. What do HE programs mean for students from marginalized backgrounds, who are not typically in HE?
Here are some answers that I've worked through:
  1. Disappointingly, I've yet to hear why we do HE articulated clearly. Inasmuch as there is explanation, it draws on much of the same mission, values, and buzzwords that are used on our campus to articulate what we do more broadly.
  2. I suspect that the kind of student who would qualify for HE is the kind of student who is likely to be successful with or without HE.
  3. My fear is that HE diverts resources from those who would benefit most to those who need it the least.

What the literature in the sociology of education shows is that education, at least as we currently do it, is not an equalizer; instead, it does social reproduction. Honors education seems like a quintessential example. Imagine how much more of an effect that million-dollar donation could have had for at-risk students (i.e. BIPOC, lower-class, first-generation, etc.). It's difficult for me to justify. While honors students are likely to succeed in college and beyond without much help from us, at-risk students benefit from any help that we can offer.