10 September 2019
When you took a seat in your first class at UCCS, what did you expect your professor to be like? You may have read threads on Twitter telling stories of the chill, hungover type who comes to class in pajamas, or the one who replies to student emails with memes. However, your expectations of your professors’ behavior and ability to teach are likely more informed by your unconscious personal biases about gender, race and age than by your social media feed.
As students, we must be willing to examine the biases we hold and ask ourselves why we hold certain views about our professors before we know them. Our stereotypical assumptions of professors can not only damage their careers, but also can hinder our own learning opportunities.
Often, it is easy enough to rationalize these biases. For example, many female students may feel most comfortable with male professors because they might be more likely to butt heads with professors of the same sex. Basic conflict avoidance, right? No girl wants to risk a so-called cat fight with her professor every day of the semester.
Though this idea appears innocent at first glance, it speaks to a certain level of internalized misogyny.
Female professors are consistently rated lower than their male counterparts by both male and female students, regardless of students’ actual demonstrated learning.
In a study led by Assistant Professor at the Erasmus School of Economics Anne Boring, researchers found no correlation between high performance on a standardized final exam and high evaluation of an instructor. Anya Kamenetz, reporting for NPR, calls these evaluations better reflections of gender bias than of what is supposed to be measured: teaching quality.
There is an image of a professor planted in students’ minds by history, the professional world and every college drama movie made ever: the wise, old white man at the front of the class. We readily accept this image as an authority figure because it remains so common, despite the growing diversification of university faculty.
Nothing is inherently wrong with white male professors either, so long as they fulfill their role in helping students learn.
During GPS start-up days, my professors put us through a guessing exercise. They showed groups of graduate students with the instructor of the class somewhere in the photo, and we had to assume who the professor was. It turns out there is not any physical identifying feature that will tell you if someone has a Ph.D. or not – it isn’t the forehead wrinkles, or the glasses, or the hair or the color of their skin.
The only way to judge any professor’s intelligence and ability is to experience their teaching firsthand.
Rather than dropping a class after the first day because you think you just cannot learn from or relate to a professor who does not match your preconceived notions of what an esteemed, scholarly figure should look like, consider the valuable perspective you will gain in your chosen field from taking his or her course.
You will find that you learn the greatest variety of information when you learn from a greater variety of people.