“Rate My Word Choice”

Here’s a story about a database tool that was widely reported as something along the lines of “students think male professors are brilliant geniuses and female professors are bossy and annoying,” but I think the headline, “Rate My Word Choice” from Inside Higher Ed is a little more accurate.  Here’s a quote:

A new tool allows those being rated (or anyone) to see the way students tend to use different words when rating male and female professors — generally to the disadvantage of the latter.

Benjamin M. Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University and a faculty member in the NuLab for Texts, Maps and Networks, created a database based on the words used in 14 million reviews on Rate My Professors. Typing in words reveals, by discipline, how common the word was (per million words of text) in reviews. The findings show the differences by gender of the faculty member, and can also be sorted strictly for positive and negative reviews, or for all reviews.

Many of the most positive words (at least in terms of academic reputation) are much more likely to come up in reviews of men than of women. The words “smart” and “intellect” are more likely to be used in ratings of men than women, and “genius” is more likely to be used to describe male than female professors in all 25 disciplines for which data are available.

It’s an interesting tool to play around with, and what I think it really demonstrates is (be prepared!) students express common sexist stereotypes in their comments on ratemyprofessor.com. Go ahead and click on that link and try some terms of your own to see what I mean.

So yes, men are more likely to be associated with words like “smart,” “genius,” “intellect.” But it’s kind of interesting to plug in some different words, too. Women are a lot more often associated with words like “supportive,” “understanding,” “caring,” and “nice.” Men are a lot more likely to be associated with words like “arrogant,” “jerk,” “idiot,” and “asshole.”

And let’s not forget that this is from a problematic data set, ratemyprofessor.com

So I guess what I’d say is I think the sexist stereotypes that run rampant in society in general also find their ways into student evaluations. That’s both interesting (and it’s an interesting “big data” research tool) and not surprising.

“EMU business students offer free tax preparation services for income-qualifying residents”

I saw an EMU press release about this too, but here’s a link to the mLive piece: “EMU business students offer free tax preparation services for income-qualifying residents.” The first couple of paragraphs:

Members of Eastern Michigan University’s Beta Alpha Psi honorary accounting society, and the Accounting Club of the EMU College of Business are offering a free tax preparation program students and members of the community.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance service is being offered to individuals and families with annual income less than $53,000 or $60,000, depending on their filing method. Each student volunteer involved in the VITA service is certified with the Internal Revenue Service to ensure the filings are done accurately.

Pretty cool– though the notion that there’s a student club where the idea of “fun” is preparing tax returns is hard for me to wrap my brain around.

Meanwhile at WMU: smoking ban and no confidence in the provost

Two articles in mLive about events over at Western Michigan University I thought were interesting and worth sharing.

First, “Western Michigan University officials pleased with response to tobacco ban after first semester.” It’s an interesting piece about how the new smoking ban is going at WMU and what they’ve done to promote it. Folks at EMU who are going to be putting a smoking ban in effect here on July 1 would do well to read this and take some tips from the folks at Western.

Second, “Western Michigan University faculty union issues official ‘no confidence’ vote against Provost Tim Greene.” There’s a lot of WMU-specific issues going on here that I can’t pretend to understand, but I think the gist of it is the faculty are mad that Greene fired the dean of the college of arts and sciences, Alex Enyedi, and apparently Enyedi was fired because he tried to “issue salary adjustments for female office workers in the college” against the Provost’s directives.

“Anonymous Feedback, Fine. Insults? Not on These Platforms.”

Interesting little article in the Chronicle, “Anonymous Feedback, Fine. Insults? Not on These Platforms.” Here’s a quote:

Colleges have long sought student feedback—usually by way of end-of-semester course evaluations—but the rude complaints on Yik Yak are seen by some professors as cyberbullying.

A few colleges and professors are experimenting with new services that attempt to steer the conversation in a more constructive direction. The services, which unlike Yik Yak have the support of the colleges using them, allow students to anonymously provide their professors with feedback throughout the course, while giving officials the ability to discover the names of users who are posting inappropriate comments.

But will giving students a new platform to make their voices heard keep them away from ranting on Yik Yak?

I think it doesn’t quite make sense to lump together Yik Yak and “seeking anonymous feedback from students,” but you get the idea. The idea here is to use various anonymous tools to get students to evaluate things in the class as it goes. I’ve tried things like that in the past and I generally find it effective, perhaps more effective than long past the end of the semester evaluations I receive from students.  Though I think it takes some experience as a teacher to interpret student evaluations, sorting out the constructive and valuable ones from the “I hated this class because he took attendance and made me show up” ones.

“Snow Day Milestones”

From Inside Higher Ed/Confessions of a Community College Dean comes “Snow Day Milestones,” by the once anonymous “Dean Dad” and now the named Matt Reed, who is the VP for Academic Affairs at Holyoke Community College. I thought this was a nice read. As the parent of a high school senior, I can’t quite relate nowadays to the taking the kids outside to play in the snow. But I do relate to the ways that technology has changed snow days:

A few years ago, a snow day meant that no “work” got done, and we probably either watched tv or read. By late afternoon, the cabin fever would get pretty bad. Depending on how severe the weather was, sometimes we could play outside, and sometimes not.

Snow days aren’t like that now.

Technology has changed, for one thing. As more “work” has moved online, I find myself spending more of each snow day dealing with emails and the like. Whether that’s progress or backsliding depends on your angle to the universe.

Indeed, this thing called “the Internets” means much of the work of teaching and learning can be done easily from the comfort of one’s home.  Classes that normally meet at 10 am on Mondays and Wednesday in Pray-Harrold Hall can potentially “meet” in an online space, particularly when the snow makes it a whole lot easier than coming to campus. Heck, I regularly teach entire classes online.

But I have to say that even when it is possible to hold a version of classes online and even when I’m teaching a class where (in theory) snow days should be irrelevant, there is something about an institutionally declared snow day that makes that tough to do. Sure, catch up on some emails and the like, but actually interact with people? It’s too cold and snowy for that.

“Eastern Michigan University cancels all classes on Monday, February 2″

Go ahead and watch all of the Superbowl and cue up that movie you’ve been wanting to watch after the game because EMU is closed tomorrow. Not surprising– it’s pretty messy out there. Stay safe, people.

“Former EMU provost and current professor Jack Kay dies at 63″

Sad news, I’m afraid: “Former EMU provost and current professor Jack Kay dies at 63.” Just one short quote from the EMU web site and a memory:

Jack Kay was a renowned scholar and a cherished academic colleague who served as Eastern Michigan University’s provost and executive vice president, and later as a distinguished EMU faculty member often sought by national media for his expertise on hate crimes and communication.

A few years ago, I saw a presentation that Jack gave about hate groups online at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield. It was a fascinating talk, and the way that he dealt with this old dude up front who seemed to be some kind of odd neo-nazi guy was quite masterful.

“Brains, Not Clothes”

Annette already posted in this comments on the post about Yik Yak, but I think this deserves its own entry: from Inside Higher Ed, “Brains, Not Clothes.” This is about a mass email to students at Rutgers University School of Law at Camden from Adam Scales, the vice dean, about how students should stop commenting on the fashion and appearance of female instructors in their end of the semester evaluations. Here’s a long quote:

“Women are frequently targets of evaluative commentary that, in addition to being wildly inappropriate and adolescent, is almost never directed at men. Believe me, I am about the last person on this faculty for whom the ‘sexism’ label falls readily to hand, but after a lifetime of hearing these stories, I know it when I see it. Anyone who doubts this would find it instructive to stop by and ask any one of our female professors about this and similar dynamics.”

Scales says that student evaluations are an “important tool,” and that they’re also public and become part of every faculty member’s record (he notes he struck the fashion “advice” from the evaluation in question in a “nanosecond,” however).

Therefore, he tells students, “When you compose comments about faculty — which can be as direct, negative and harshly detailed as you like — I want you to remember that you’re writing for the personnel file, and for history. If you have any doubts that posterity will somehow muddle through without the benefit of your fashion advice, allow me to dispel them once and for all.”

The reaction to this at Rutgers has been mostly positive, though there are some folks who disagree with Scales about his message. Personally, I think it’s right message because I often think that students don’t realize the ways their comments in evaluations (or in social media spaces like Yik Yak, for that matter) are carried beyond the specific situation.

“A New Faculty Challenge: Fending Off Abuse on Yik Yak” (or, EMU made news in the CHE)

And now it would appear that the recent Yik Yak controversy has made its way to the Chronicle of Higher Education with this article, “A New Faculty Challenge: Fending Off Abuse on Yik Yak.”  And once again, I think this is something that some enterprising young person at The Eastern Echo ought to write about. There is definitely a story in the student angle on this whole thing.

The bad news is it’s behind the CHE firewall; the good news is, thanks to the kindness of friends online, I have been able to snag a copy of it. I don’t think it’d be right for me to just post the whole thing here, but let me share some quotes and comments.

First off, the setting (which I kind of knew before, but I think that’s key here): this was a mandatory interdisciplinary studies lecture hall class of 230 first year students, and it met at 9 am on Fridays.  The article says that students “resented” having to be there and were “unhappy” about what had been going on before the Yik Yak incident. If I were a first year student and I was told I had to show up to a lecture hall class on a Friday morning, I’d feel the same way.

So during one of these sessions and after the class had been going along for a while, the Yik Yak conversation got a little crazy. And then this:

After the class ended, one of its 13 fellows—junior and senior honors students who were helping teach—pulled a professor aside and showed her a screen-captured record of what she and her colleagues had just gone through. Students had written more than 100 demeaning Yik Yak posts about them, including sexual remarks, references to them using “bitch” and a vulgar term for female anatomy, and insults about their appearance and teaching. Even some of the fellows appeared to have joined the attack.

In an email to administrators later that day, one of the three, Margaret A. Crouch, a professor of philosophy, said, “I will quit before I put up with this again.”

Of course, the question that remains for me is if that class fellow student hadn’t pulled a professor aside to show the screenshot of the offending conversation, would this have happened? If a Yak falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound?

I don’t meant to be flip about it, but I do think it’s tricky and this whole situation exemplifies the futility of stopping this kind of inappropriate speech and thought completely. Just to state the obvious: I think it’s wrong for students to refer to/think of their teachers as bitches, vulgar terms for the female anatomy, and to insult their appearance. That’s a given, and I think that when that happens directly– as in the student going face to face up to his GA/part-timer/lecturer/professor and saying “I think you’re an ugly bitch”– that student ought to be punished. I can understand the position of “I will quit” if that sort of face to face confrontation is not addressed.

But what happens when that sort of thing is written anonymously on a student evaluation and delivered to the teacher after the course? Should the administration try to find and discipline that student? What if this is something a student just says to one of his friends and then the friend reports this abusive language to the teacher; should the teacher punish that student? What if the student calls his teacher a bitch with a text/a tweet/a Facebook post/an email/a handwritten note? Are we going to ban those mediums?

What I’m getting at here of course is that obviously it’s a problem when students call their teachers vulgar names, but I think there are some equally obvious limits about completely eliminating the possibility students will write or think vulgar things about their teachers. Banning Yik Yak certainly wouldn’t solve this problem.

(Two quick tangents here.  First, I know both Margaret Crouch and Elisabeth Däumer and I feel bad that they’ve been embroiled in all of this. No one deserves to be abused by students or anyone else like this, and I’m sorry that this happened to them.  I don’t think the solution is banning Yik Yak obviously, but don’t interpret my “defense” of Yik Yak as defending the right for students to be assholes.  Second, I’m using the term “teacher” rather than “professor” because I think it’s more inclusive than “professor.” Professors are, by definition, more empowered at the institution, and quite frankly, I think the non-professor teachers are much more vulnerable to abuse like this. But that’s perhaps a conversation for another time.)

But again, I think this article makes it clear that it wasn’t just Yik Yak:

The professors characterized the online abuse as part of a hostile work environment. In a confidential report on the Yik Yak incident issued last month, Sharon L. Abraham, the university’s director of diversity and affirmative action, said the professors had “described a classroom environment where students talked during lecture, responded aggressively to requests to stop inappropriate behavior, and were generally disrespectful.” It said the professors had “felt threatened when dealing with students in the class who were physically large and male.”

Some Yik Yak posts about the professors suggested racial and cultural divides.

After one of the professors described a topic as too complicated to get into, one student wrote, “Are you calling me stupid? I’m an honors student bitch!”

Another Yik Yak post said, “She keeps talking about Detroit. Bitch, yo white ass probably ain’t never been in Detroit.”

[Professor Elisabeth] Däumer recalls reading the Yik Yak posts directed at her and asking herself, “Just who the hell did they think they are?”

Ms. Crouch says the Yik Yak posts “wrecked the class” and “made it impossible for us to appear in front of the 220 students again.” The instructors did not confront their students about the remarks, she says, because “we did not really feel we had any authority anymore.”

I hate to say this, but this passage suggests to me this class had kind of “gone off the rails” well before this Yik Yak incident. In reality, it doesn’t seem like Yik Yak wrecked the class so much as Yik Yak was the last incident in a previously wrecked class.

And by the way, if a teacher of any sort feels threatened by a student, then that teacher should immediately contact their department head and campus security. I don’t think it’s fair to say that someone is a threat only because they are “physically large and male,” but I also think that if the teacher thinks there is a problem, that teacher should get that problem solved and solved in a hurry.

There’s this about yours truly and EMUTalk:

Steven D. Krause, a professor of English, subsequently argued on his blog,EMUtalk.org, that Yik Yak represents a potential teaching tool and banning it would be “shortsighted.” He questioned whether the students’ comments were anything but protected free speech, and argued that the union should focus its energy elsewhere in contract talks.

Well, sort of. I think students have the right to free speech, I think that Yik Yak does have some potential applications in the classes I teach (particularly as a “discursive site” to discuss with students), I don’t think Yik Yak should be banned, and I do think the union has much bigger fish to fry in contract negotiations. But I don’t condone the student comments. I suppose students might have the “right” to call their professor a bitch in the broadest sense of free speech, but that isn’t something I support.

The article goes on to cover ground we’ve already talked about here, how while Yik Yak has given up the name of people involved in specific crimes, they haven’t given up the names of people who post harassing things, etc. One other thing I think is interesting: “The only student so far punished in connection with the Yik Yak incident is one who stepped forward and confessed.”

Here’s how the piece ends:

For her part, [EMU-AAUP President Susan] Moeller, the faculty union’s president, said in her email the three professors had been “stonewalled” by an administration that “has refused to determine which students are responsible for the sexual harassment.”

Ms. Crouch says pushing for new contractual protections against harassment is her only available recourse. “If anything happens,” she says, “it is going to be because we make it happen.”

I guess this leaves me wondering what exactly is the “it” we are going to make happen here?

Speaking of banning laptops….

Since the whole role of laptops and cell phones in class has been a part of the discussion lately, I thought I’d post this.  From CHE (though this was published last week) comes “Students Are Welcome to Shop Online During My Lectures” by David von Schlichten. He begins the article by explaining that he started to draft this piece while he was in a meeting; a bit later, there’s this:

Frankly, students’ being on their computers or texting does not faze me. This may be because, before I was a professor, I was a parish pastor for 17 years. Sunday after Sunday, I preached while people nodded off or babies screamed (and screamed, and screamed). Who knows how many parishioners were actually paying attention and how many were texting, making grocery lists, or passing notes? I could not monitor all that. I did my best to prepare engaging, relevant sermons. If people chose not to pay attention, I could not help that.

I have the same attitude in the classroom. I am an excellent lecturer. If students opt not to pay attention during my lectures, I am disappointed but not angry. I do my part; it is up to them to do theirs. From what I have heard from my colleagues, the policing of students is more aggravating than worthwhile, and with 173 students in five classes, I simply do not have the time and energy to be disciplining students for not giving me their undivided attention. Besides, just as I was able to start this essay during a meeting and am able to work at home while the TV is on (although it is hard to multitask during The Good Wife), at least some students can probably pay attention to me while doing something else (one student used to knit during class.).