American University, Arrogance, CMU, Duquesne University College of Education, Evidence, Gender Bias, George Washington University, Howard University, Interpretation, Opinion, Personal Opinion, Pitt, Racial Bias, Racism, SETs, Student Evaluations, Student Evaluations of Teaching, UDC, UMUC
I received my latest evaluations from my AU students this spring. Really, I shouldn’t complain. Overall, my scores met or exceeded most metrics in all three of my courses this semester, even as some students thought there was “too much reading” or that I needed to “provide more guidance” on the readings I assigned. As an instructor, I have to sort of compartmentalize or even mentally toss out the personal attacks in such surveys. From students thinking I’m sexist because I used “#TimesUp” to get their attention after saying “Time’s up” multiple times during a small group discussion, to students saying I lack “emotional intelligence” because of email miscommunications (mostly on their part, though I took the blame) over a dramatic event. I’m hardly perfect, have never claimed to be, and expect that in dealing with human beings, especially young adults, that these things and their sometimes petty responses are bound to occur.
But some responses have been consistent across time and institution since my TAing days at the University of Pittsburgh. At some point since Fall 1992, a student or two will decide that I’m “arrogant” and that “[I] only care about [my] opinions,” that somehow, I never gave them room to express their opinions or somehow failed to validate their opinions. I don’t think I’ll ever overcome these critiques, nor should I try, especially after so many years of teaching. As the research has indicated for at least a decade, student evaluations of faculty are not reliable sources of data. Barely four out of 10 students at most colleges and universities will actually take the 10 to 20 minutes to complete one. Most negative evaluations correlate to an actual or an anticipated grade that is lower than what the student wanted for themselves in the course.
But the data for faculty of color, especially women faculty of color, and even more especially for Black women faculty, shows measurable racial and gender biases. Complaints about language, how one dresses, speech patterns, and other ticks and foibles become heightened. And not just among White students. Students of color, and Black students in particular, hold the Black faculty who have served as their instructors to a standard that could only be met by a parent of a newborn baby, something akin to perfection. I have felt this last bit during classes and other times at AU this semester more than others.
Still, on the broader issue of arrogance, I have changed my lecture style, the amount I lecture, the kinds of discussions I have run, the tactics for getting students to bond in the classroom, and (where I could) the types of readings I have assigned, just so students are more comfortable and willing to learn. None of this has mattered for the students who expect me to validate every idea they express in the classroom. None of this matters when I go in front of the classroom and lecture and facilitate discussion to this small but very vocal minority.
I used to think it was my age back in the 1990s. So I tried to be more objective, less animated, and gave up some degree of authority in the classroom. That worked for a couple of semesters at Duquesne College of Education and at GW. Mostly. But, even there, one student who told me day one she “hated history” and two students at GW wrote about my so-called classroom arrogance in their evals.
In teaching undergrads for a couple of semesters at the University of the District of Columbia and at Howard in 2006 and 2007, though, not one student had that issue with me. They didn’t complain when I poked holes in their analysis, or when I asked them to back up their opinions with evidence. It was refreshing, actually, to have students who didn’t assume that their opinions and that my years of interpreting and writing about history were equal in weight. Could it be that the racial dynamics of UDC and Howard made for a different interpretation of my demeanor and conveying of knowledge in the classroom (as one is a predominantly Black institution and the other is a flagship HBCU)? Probably.
Since my second year of teaching at UMUC, though, and with this first year at AU, this allegation of arrogance via my opinions has been constant with my evaluations, no matter how well students did and how positive my evaluations were otherwise. At this point, I have figured out a few tendencies of students who lodge this complaint. They are typically not comfortable with the material or with me as their instructor. I am frequently sarcastic, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and gesticulate while using some of the skills I picked up from acting-as-public-speaking classes to lecture. In other words, lecturing with skill for me is a performance, one that conveys information, and it must be done with a high degree of confidence and seriousness, balanced with levity. That I have also decided to not treat history in a truly objective manner was deliberate, because history is a living subject, and thus cannot be taught objectively. Fairness and truth are far more important. That doesn’t make me arrogant. That makes me a confident instructor, but one with humanity and empathy.
As for opinions, I have sometimes said to my students, “As the saying goes, opinions are like assholes — nearly everyone has one.” That has usually gotten a few laughs (you gotta read the room before saying something like this — my AU students are too serious on the use of colorful language from what I’ve found so far). But even when I say that “this particular interpretation comes from me,” I am still expressing more than a personal opinion or insight. I am expressing an idea or interpretation based on years of study, observation, reading, and writing, for scholarly and mainstream publications. So when I insist on students backing up their opinions with evidence, or literally have to say, “No, that not correct,” and then explain why it isn’t, this is me doing the job of an instructor with years of knowledge and even expertise on a wide variety of topics, not just some random person on the Red Line train to Shady Grove.
Even with all of these caveats about the differences between opinion and interpretation, about my level of expertise, and about my approach to the classroom, there are some small number of students who will say, “He’s arrogant,” “He doesn’t value my opinion.” Or, as one student emailed me four years ago, “Sir, you are a dickhead.” I realize that these specific comments, like the ones I wrote about for The Washington Post last year about the rejection of Black history and racism as central parts of US history, were about my difference, not my indifference. Being a Black man teaching mostly White students, or teaching Black students who expect me to consistently validate their unsubstantiated opinions, does not have its privileges. Especially on a student evaluation form.