How Not to Know; Or, Hack Your Student Evals with this One Weird Trick

At some point between having children and my fortieth birthday, the excellent memory I was born with started to falter. I struggled for words that were just out of reach, snapped my fingers trying to remember names, and started to say things like “let me just write that down before I forget.” My mind, it seemed, was ready to enter middle age.

It was, to be honest, a relief. I didn’t realize until my mind started to go how much I’d struggled to soften it in company, letting the things in my head out at what I judged to be a socially acceptable rate rather than the know-it-all pace that came naturally. Now, I thought, I wouldn’t have to pretend not to know things; I could do it for real.

I wasn’t raised in a family that thought girls should be sweet and quiet; I went to competitive schools where intelligence and knowledge were the coin of the realm. It never occurred to me to pretend not to be smart. But as pretending ceased to be necessary, I realized that I’d been deploying strategic dimness socially for years and years. I’ve found that knowing things has to be done carefully even in the university classroom, the place where it is my job to profess what I know. If I don’t pay attention, I end up reading student evaluations that say things like, “It almost seemed like she knew the answer and we didn’t.” Or, “Sometimes she seemed like she was saying people were wrong.”

It’s become a commonplace, at least among women academics, that student evaluations reveal deep sexism. There are plenty of research studies women can refer to when making our aggrieved case that students see us differently because of our gender. Psych researchers love the big, freely available data trove that is approximately as much as the rest of us hate it. In addition to demonstrating negative correlations between high evaluation scores and student learning and the positive effects of “hotness,” studies such as Kristina M. W. Mitchell and Jonathan Martin’s “Gender Bias in Student Evaluations” have shown that women are referred to as “teacher” while men are called “professor,” that men are called “geniuses” while women are “nice” (or not). The study I tend to bring up most in conversation is Lillian MacNell, Adam Driscoll, and Andrea N. Hunt’s “What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching.” MacNell, Driscoll, and Hunt assigned differently gendered instructor names to identical sections of online courses, with the predictable outcome that the “women” scored lower.

Some studies, it should be said, have shown smaller (or insignificant) effects of gender on student evaluations; many have seen greater effects from race than anything else. I’m a white, cisgendered, non-disabled, middle-class woman, and it’s likely that my identity has bolstered more than it’s harmed my reputation among students. Still, there’s something particular in those comments: the offense that that I might try to tell students things I knew, that I might see myself as qualified to disagree with things they thought they knew.

To explain the differences in how students evaluate the people who teach them, psychologists use the term “role incongruity,” which is also supposed to account for why we can’t manage to elect a woman president. The gist, as I take it, is that we’re conditioned to expect authority figures to be men; when women display confidence, judgment, and knowledge, the effect is unpleasant. Since I’m not a psychologist, I will take this opportunity to make myself appealing by confessing that I have no idea whether this is the case. My training is in literary history, which is relevant in more contexts than you might expect. Here, for example, I find myself thinking about controversies over women’s role in early New England churches.

You remember, I’m sure, the Puritans, who came to Massachusetts to found a church in which all believers were equal before God. Some people, of course, were more equal than others, and there’s a dizzying literature of justifications for the hierarchical social order. Some of my favorites (I like a good extended metaphor) are rooted in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which maps social roles onto body parts. Man is the head of the woman, as Christ is the head of man and God is the head of Christ. That feels a bit hard, if you’re a woman who likes her own head, but Paul goes on to reassure us that all of the body parts are essential. “If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?” he asks. The system works when everyone stays in their given place.

The Puritans who came to New England struggled almost immediately with conflict around the question of who gets to tell what to whom. The 1636 trial of Anne Hutchinson revolved around whether Hutchinson’s disapproving comments about ministers’ sermons had constituted preaching—whether she had spoken publicly, whether there were men in her audiences, whether she claimed authority that should have been reserved for male elders. After her conviction, Hutchinson moved to the more tolerant Rhode Island but was eventually driven to what is now New York, where she was murdered in a Siwanoy raid. (Her memory remains inscribed on the land, you might say, in the name of a parkway that provides a relatively convenient route between the city and Connecticut.)

The evangelical superstar John Wesley provided women with helpful advice for avoiding Hutchinson’s fate. They could testify in front of crowds, he maintained; they just needed to deny that they were trying to preach and instead say, “I will just nakedly tell you what is in my heart.” Women could speak about their own feelings and experiences; they could bear witness; they could tell their stories. They could not, however, preach.

I have some feelings and experiences I’d like to share, about the worst teaching evaluations I ever got. That semester ended two weeks before my second child was born, which probably has something to do with why it wasn’t my best semester of teaching as well as why, when the evaluations showed up a few weeks later, the experience of reading them felt debilitating. As worst semesters go, it could have been worse. The department at the time was still holding out against numerical ratings, so I didn’t have to face anything as terrible as a three. And not all of the students panned the course; some were quite appreciative. But the evaluations had that repetitive quality that suggests students have been complaining together behind your back. My comments on papers were too critical; my grades were subjective; I acted like I knew more than the students did; I dared to correct them.

I suspect that outside the postpartum fog, I might have read these with grim humor and the pain of being criticized would have lasted a few hours. As it was, though, I felt paralyzed by shame. I went about nursing and diaper changing and rocking and trying to manage my suddenly difficult toddler as if I were carrying a terrible secret. I didn’t tell my husband. I was fairly certain I wouldn’t teach ever again. I was an adjunct, so this was a real possibility, but I retained enough sense of reality to know that the comments weren’t bad enough to get me fired. Still, I never wanted to put my face in front of a roomful of students again in my life.

No one should feel like this, I thought. And, full of shame, I thought about the comments I had made on the students’ papers and how awful it might have been to read them. I never made mean comments (in my own opinion, at least), but being overtired meant that I put less effort into dropping crumbs of encouragement to leaven the criticism. Frankly, I’ve never been much good at that anyway, and that semester, I was teaching first-years who might benefit from a more realistic sense of where they needed to improve. I’m not sure that approach was wrong. Some, the stronger ones, probably did get the point of my lessons, even if they didn’t like it at the time. But the others—the ones slumping behind blank looks and poorly concealed phones—I hadn’t understood before. They weren’t going to try harder because I told them they should. They were going to give up.

The twelve weeks of my second maternity leave were some of the hardest I’ve experienced (maternity leave: horrible experiences, and such small portions!). Not long after it began—my son was born on the winter solstice—it started to snow, and kept snowing, piling up drifts and banks so high the sidewalks became tunnels. We hardly left the house. My son was reverse-cycling, awake more at night than in the day, probably because he never saw daylight. My two-year-old daughter had always been an easy kid, but she started acting out in ways I couldn’t address while pinned to my couch by a nursing baby (he nursed all the time). I was having a crisis of parenting confidence. Before my daughter’s birth, I had known that children need consistent structure and authority; in her presence I was more of an attachment parent than I’d expected, finding myself baby-wearing and on-demand feeding and refusing to let her cry anything out. But I never had trouble making rules, hardly thought twice about admonishments. That winter she provoked them more than usual. Half the time I shouted and the other half I dissolved in weeping.

I didn’t figure it out. I went back to work. I eventually had five consecutive hours of sleep, then six. Since I’d gone back to my administrative job at the university mid-semester, I wasn’t teaching that spring. I avoided thinking about the classroom, which was easy because I was too tired to think about anything. I tried to be less negative, which was hard because I was too tired to feel anything good.

One morning when I barely made the train to work, the elderly volunteer at the train station watched me sprint across the platform, my work bags and breast pump banging against my chest, and said, “You need to start getting up earlier.” I shouted at her in my head for a long time. I had been up very early, nursing. There’d been a last-minute urgent diaper change. The railroad crossing bars had come down a minute or two before they should have, so I was stuck a few hundred yards from the station until the train passed the crossing. I hated that woman.

But that impulse to offer advice to someone who seems to need it, someone who seems less knowledgeable or prepared or educated—I recognize it. I do it. I would be very happy to let you know some of the many helpful things I’ve picked up along the way: how to keep cilantro fresh; my favorite email hack; that you need to cut that whole first paragraph; that you may not drink your milk with a spoon; what the Puritans thought about women preachers. I believe the impulse is fundamentally generous. I want to tell you these things because I feel better for knowing them, and I believe you will too. Wanting to tell people things—including when they are wrong—may be the root of the whole educational project, by which we try to make our whole society better by sharing curated knowledge.

It took me a long time to start to see how that same enthusiasm for sharing and correcting can also suggest a lack of recognition of others as people with their own knowledge, their own stories, their own sleepless nights and second jobs to cover daycare bills. I had started out with a model of teaching that says: Let’s treat everyone the same, even if they don’t start out that way. We will perform the rituals of knowledge and sophistication, therefore allowing students to imitate and enter them. We recognize that students have needs, but it does them no favors to make excuses; it will only slow their learning. I still don’t think this is entirely wrong. It’s one way of respecting students’ abilities and potential. But I’m increasingly aware of my responsibility to those students who are in some way or another vulnerable, who will respond to a challenge not with energy but with despair.

When I went back to teaching that fall—still exhausted, still taking pump breaks every two hours, still not sure that the classroom was a place I should be—I looked for ways to be more gentle, to make wider paths for students who seemed to be ignoring the ones I’d laid out. It turned out I already knew how to do it; I just hadn’t really believed in what I was doing. At my institution the teaching of writing is dominated by theories of encouragement, of helping students find their voice, of eschewing the red pen. I understood the idea, but it rankled a bit. I had learned best from honest criticism; I wouldn’t have gotten good at things without having to respond to some challenges. It’s a kind of teaching that works well for a person who is strong, buoyed by a confidence that can take little buffets of insult without collapsing. That winter I started to understand what it’s like to be a different kind of person, one for whom collapse is possible.

In addition to recognizing the value of affirming teaching practices (I still don’t really think the pen color matters), I realized that I could make good use of the self-abnegating habits I’d unconsciously developed in order to navigate a world that still cringes at female authority.  Pretending to forget things isn’t especially helpful in teaching, but there is something to be said for remembering that witnessing and testifying can be more effective than preaching. I’ve been trying to share my own experiences more, and to bear in mind the depth of what I don’t know about the students in front of me. If you were to watch my screen as I comment on papers, you’d see a lot of me typing a suggestion then backing up and adding “to me it seems” or “as I read it” or “my personal preference would be.”

These efforts have sometimes felt like pandering, I have to say. Last semester one of my evaluation comments said, “I liked that she admitted she wasn’t an expert and that we were all learning together.” We weren’t, of course; I’d worked very hard to know a lot more than the students on the topic about which I am, it is true, not quite an expert.

It remains irritating to be more likeable when I’m less knowledgeable, or when I keep my knowledge well wrapped up. It’s also irritating to lose my place in the middle of a sentence, to forget the name of the person I’ve just met, and the person I’ve met a dozen times. I’d prefer to do none of these things. I’d prefer to be strong and perfect; and I’d prefer to live in a world where the authority of women—and of people of color, and of people with disabilities, and so on—causes no discomfort. But if I have to live in this world, this graying and softening body, I’m grateful to be learning what might be less a silver lining than an open secret, known by those who know. To be incongruous in our roles is a kind of gift, a starting place, the beginning of understanding.

Katherine Gaudet is Associate Director of the Honors Program and affiliate faculty in Humanities at the University of New Hampshire, as well as a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Saco, Maine with her husband and two children.

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