College course evaluations, while valuable, do not always give a precise measure of the competence of a professor. Students, who have been judged all semester by professors, have an opportunity to pass judgment themselves. Some of them take the task seriously and offer constructive comments. For others, it’s payback time.
This is a process with which I am familiar: I teach appellate legal writing at George Mason University’s law school, a required course which some students approach with as much delight as a trip to the dentist. I do my best to make the material engaging, and some students respond well, but others don’t. One student simply wrote: “I’m sorry, I still hate legal writing.” Fair enough.
But what if students were encouraged to report, anonymously, any way in which their professors offended them over the course of the semester? Would this be a constructive way to improve professors’ teaching, or would it restrict the free flow of ideas at a university by creating a chilling effect on faculty in the classroom?
We may soon find out, because that’s exactly what students at Emory University have demanded, as reported by The Emory Wheel. On December 2, 2015, a group calling itself the Black Students of Emory published a formal list of grievances and demands for reform. The fourth demand involves changing course evaluation forms so that students can report any professor who has committed a “microaggression” during the semester:
4. We demand that the faculty evaluations that each student is required to complete for each of their professors include at least two open-ended questions such as: “Has this professor made any microaggressions towards you on account of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, and/or other identity?” and “Do you think that this professor fits into the vision of Emory University being a community of care for individuals of all racial, gender, ability, and class identities?” These questions on the faculty evaluations would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors.
We demand that these questions be added to the faculty evaluations by the end of this semester, Fall 2015.
In 2010, Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers’ College and School of Social Work, writing in Psychology Today, defined a microaggression as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”
Note that a microaggression can be unintentional. So these students are proposing that faculty members be penalized for any comment made sometime during the semester that the professor didn’t even know was problematic when it was uttered. Furthermore, professors would be subject to the subjective assessment of each student as to what constitutes a microaggression—something even students themselves don’t agree on. University-level teaching would simply be impossible under such conditions.
How could, for instance, any political science professor dare to discuss the San Bernardino shooting and its implication for national security if she could be penalized for a microaggression against a Muslim student in the class? How could an English professor teach the debate about the influence of Langston Hughes’ sexuality on his poetry if a student might construe his remarks as homophobic?
The Emory students are not alone in making illiberal demands. FIRE’s Executive Director Robert Shibley recently discussed this phenomenon at length. But the really disturbing news is that Emory has come perilously close to saying it will revise the course evaluation forms to include the students’ desired language:
Each academic Dean will be asked to establish a process in the school/college to review and revise current course evaluations (e.g., add the recommended open-ended questions), as well as make other revisions identified as part of the review. Next, these revised course evaluations will be shared through existing mechanisms such as the Council of Deans, the University Senate, and the ongoing assessments on student learning.
And make no mistake about it, these questions are designed not just to identify microaggressions (and, presumably, the worst “microaggressors”), but to motivate professors to toe the political line when speaking in class. Why else ask students to officially evaluate whether their professor fits into a “community of care for individuals of all racial, gender, ability, and class identities”? Indeed, the students state flat-out that “[t]hese questions on the faculty evaluations would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors.” And the official Emory response backs this up, reassuring students that the “course evaluation information is used for the annual evaluation of each faculty member as well as included in the dossier for each faculty member considered for tenure and/or promotion” and that the university will report annually on “the nature and number of negative actions regarding faculty members.”
To be sure, Emory’s response is very carefully crafted. It promises the students that Emory will “ask” academic deans to start a process to revise course evaluation forms—not that they will do so. And by employing e.g. rather than i.e. before “add the recommended open-ended questions,” it may stop just short of promising that those questions would be added in any such process. But this delicate language parsing has given the protesters reason to believe—and the public reason to fear—that Emory will give into this illiberal demand. Those of us who hoped that the administration would refuse on principle to even consider such a chilling proposal are once again forced to declare a new low in bureaucratic expedience.