Saturday, September 17, 2011

Yes, students are biased. So what?

So I confessed a couple of days ago the shocking news that professors have points of view, sometimes feel strongly about their own research and scholarship and like to share, in different ways, those opinions with their students. To distill, in uncharacteristically precise fashion, the point of that piece to its essence, I suggested that, in the end, it doesn't matter what professors think or what their opinions are. What matters is how well the student challenges his or herself and how honest a student is willing to be about s/he does or doesn't know. What I believe or how I vote -- or even if I vote -- is no more relevant to a student's education than a student's decisions are to my own life.

I have colleagues who make no bones about where they stand on almost anything, and others who make a special effort to "hide" their opinions for fear of "prejudicing" their students' perceptions of them. After more than twenty years of teaching at the college level, I don't think it really matters how professors handle their "opinions" as long as they create space for a student to introduce and defend their own ideas.

Here's the real question for students who wonder how their professor's "biases" affect their in-class experience: Do students ever think for a moment about their own biases, and how those biases affect their perceptions of their professors?

When I was an undergraduate, I didn't spend a lot of time guessing or even thinking about what my professors' politics were. I spent most of my time thinking about:

1. Whether the girl that I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No. But would she confess three weeks later in a bar that she would have if I had only asked her out 33 more times? Yes!)

2. Whether I had enough money to go out Friday and Saturday night, or whether I would be stuck home pretending to study one of those nights because I was broke. (Answer: No; yes.)

3. If I made a A in this class, would that move my GPA up enough to get into the "reach" graduate school to which I applied? Or what if I made a B? Or C? (Answer: I don't know. I got in where I wanted to and hoped like hell I didn't get a call saying there had been a bureaucratic snafu and I was back on the street.)

4. Whether the other girl I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No. But would she confess after graduation that she always liked me, and was afraid of liking me "too much?" Yes!)

5. Whether the other girl I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No, without a caveat.)

So, no, I didn't wonder very much if my professor in whatever class I was taking in college was a Communist, a socialist, an atheist, a Republican, gay, lived with his mother, killed small animals as a child just for fun, smoked dope, was a reformed arsonist, a secret cross-dresser and so on. I spent much more time, when I wasn't thinking about which cute girl was going to turn me down for a date, about the opinions of my classmates, and what could have possibly happened to them that caused them to say some of things that they did. Dropped on their head? Locked in a shed? Brainwashed by foreign, no, extraterrestrial agents? Denied food and water for extensive periods of time? Suffering from an untreated concussion? The list was endless . . .

But that was really one of the funnest parts of college -- getting a chance to hear views, opinions, accents and beliefs that you had never heard before (and, depending where you moved after college was over, you might never hear again). That wouldn't happen to me again until I started playing ice hockey ten years ago, when I was fortunate to meet men and women younger and older than me who didn't do what I did for a living and lived in other parts of town. Now, colleges emphasize intellectual diversity in their admissions decisions (sometimes linking them to race and ethnicity, but that is a whole different subject) because they want the undergraduate experience to be one that exposes students to different points of view.

Great. All for it.

But that means students will come into the classroom with biases of their own. And just as professors must evaluate students as fairly as they can on graded assignments, students must learn to evaluate professors as fairly as they can without regard to their own opinions. I'd much rather have a student just come right out and say, "You know, that guy is an asshole!" rather than feel that s/he couldn't get a fair shake on the basis of their opinion. Teach long enough and enough students will conclude that you are an asshole (or a fuckhead, shitbrain, prick, whatever) regardless of their self-styled political philosophies, but very few believe that my opinions, whatever they may, got in the way of a fair evaluation). For me, as for any serious and ethical college teacher, students need to understand that they are going to get a high, hard one right down the middle regardless of whether they think they agree with me or not. Or make it move around a bit, change speeds and, when necessary, throw at their heads. A student needs to develop the self-awareness and the maturity to realize that they should not always blame me if they ground out or whiff. My only obligation is to put the ball over the plate. The rest is up to you.

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