Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

S._Sgt._Lorraine_Robitaille,_switchboard_supervisor,_from_Duluth,_Minnesota,_looks_down_the_line_of_the_Victory..._-_NARA_-_199009As I said in the last post, sexism and racism by students is real and exists. I gave some advice for how to combat sexist or racist reviews from students once you got them. I also gave some helpful hints to senior people to help younger people.

Not to be an a-hole, I took my own advice, and talked to a junior faculty member about his last year reviews. This is a perfect time to have this conversation because he is getting ready for this fall’s class. Going through his reviews, there was some definite and easy ways to get him some better evaluation scores. These changes fall along the lines of “Changing 20%” which is the scheme I advocate for making any changes for your life in general (for instance, see here and here). Based on my conversation with my junior colleague, I thought about some things I could share to help everybody score better evaluations.

  1. Never, ever say anything negative about yourself. I have had an entire blog post about this (here). Yes, I have said it before, but as any teacher knows, repetition doesn’t hurt. You should read that post, but also, just take this home: Do not ever say anything negative about yourself in class. It does not matter if it is true. This is actually an easy one to change.
  2. Set Expectations From DAY 1. I have also posted about how best to set expectations and set the tone in your class starting on the first day.
    • Your Syllabus. Your syllabus is your contract with the class. I have a post about your syllabus (here). I stand by what I said here, but I want to make something else very clear: You should make policies that WORK. When I was discussing with my junior colleague, there were a number of modifications to the syllabus that were needed to make it clear about the expectations. In his case, his late work policy was WAY TOO LENIENT. Because he had a “nice” late policy, the students took advantage of him.
    • Confirm the contract. In order to make it clear that the syllabus is a contract, get them to agree to it. I usually ask if they have changes they want to make, and they never do. They are often a little stunned at being asked their opinion.
    • Do something different. Yes, you will go through your syllabus, but you aren’t going to start teaching on day 1, are you? If so, don’t. It is a waste of time. They won’t retain anything. They might not even stay in the class. So, after going through the syllabus and getting is approved, I recommend doing something very different. As I posted previously, I take pictures of all my students. I have them go to the board, four students at a time. They write their names over their heads, and I take their pictures. I never force them, but have never had a student say no. I ask them to put up the name they want me to learn and know. They get to get up out of their seats. They realize that the class is different than other classes. You look whimsical. 
  3. Play to and Destroy Their Stereotypes. That last thing on the last part, where I say, “You look whimsical” this is so important. To me, looking whimsical, is a good thing. And, it undercuts some of their initial, likely stereotypes of me in the class. I prefer to look whimsical rather than incompetent, mean, or difficult. I believe that you must set the tone for their expectations of you. This means you must build an image of yourself in their minds. Unfortunately, they will come with culturally devised, pre-conceived notions of you based on your age, race, gender, hair, clothes, and height.
    • Example 1: Are you a middle-aged, tall, white man? Congratulations, your students will be very likely to think you are smart, competent, and correct all the time! Put on a little charm, act like you care, and you are likely to get very high evaluations.
    • Example 2: Are you a young woman? They will likely think you are incompetent, do not know your material, should be a push-over, and the class should be easy.
    • Read About It: If you are interested in this, I highly recommend this book: Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential by Neffinger and Kohut. It is not necessarily about teaching, but it describes cultural biases and norms for different body shapes, age, race, and genders. It helps you identify the positive stereotypes that you should play up, and those negative ones that you need to combat.
    • Say positive things about yourself: See point #1 above. Students will repeat what you say to them in your evaluations, so why wouldn’t you say positive things about yourself? I am not suggesting you brag or look arrogant. I suggest you mention good things about yourself in passing. Mention that you got tenure. Mention that you were nominated for a teaching award.
    • Tell them you care: This goes with the one above, but it is more specific. Because they will repeat what you say, you need to make sure you are telling them how much you care about them and their learning. You may think it is obvious because you are spending so much time on them, but they really have no idea what you are doing all day. When you are teaching them, I suggest that you tell them that you care and use that as a reason for pushing them. When things get difficult in class, be a cheerleader, be positive, and make it clear that you care. Plus, caring is one of the positive stereotypes of being a woman. The flip-side of this is if they think you don’t care, they will be VERY NEGATIVE about you. So, not only do to need to tell them that you care, you also cannot, under any circumstances, let them know that you don’t care. It is the kiss of death.
    • Realize that different classes may require different personas. When I teach majors, I have a different persona and project a slightly different personality compared to when I teach non-majors. This is because the students have different needs and expectations for me because on their backgrounds. I will probably try to detail and describe this more in a future post, but I believe it is important to keep in mind that your student populations are different depending on the class, the level, and even the year.
  4. Learn their names. An easy way to show them you care is to learn their names and use them. If you have a relatively small class, this is a must. If you have a big class, make sure you learn about 20% of them. Then, call them by name in class when they answer questions or when you call on them.
  5. Start off as a Hard-Ass and Ease Up. Your syllabus may have a strict late policy. For instance, mine is to not accept late homework. And I stick to this because I only count 10/11 homework assignments. But, about half way through, I start to ease up on some students. It isn’t that I really accept late work, but I start to allow somethings like scanned homework assignments emailed to me that I print and add to the pile. I tell the student I will make an exception only once. Why do I do this?
    • It makes me look nice and like I care. And because, honestly, as long as not everyone is doing it, it isn’t difficult on me. If you start as a softie, they walk all over you, and you are making exceptions all the time. There are a number of problems with being too nice: (a) Some kids never take advantage, and they resent that other students got away with stuff, (b) it is harder on you if this happens a lot.
    • Example: Another thing I do is to let them redo the question on their exam they lose the most points on. But, I don’t tell them this at the beginning. I act like it is a spontaneous act of kindness because I care. I want them to learn the thing they missed, and this will allow them to do this. I do this for every exam, because it is good for them to re-try and get right a question they missed. But, it makes me look nice, and that is a bonus.
  6. Be Fair. Part of appearing to care is to be fair. Being too easy or too flexible or allowing students to walk all over you is not fair. One nice thing that that you can often get out of annoying situations by playing the fairness card. For instance, you cannot offer only one person extra credit or accept a late assignment (which will be more hassle and a huge pain to you) because it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else. I use this ALL the time.
    • Give points – don’t take them away: This is perhaps obvious, but psychologically, students often think they are starting at an A and that you are removing points to make them get a lower grade. This, of course, is ridiculous. In fact, they start with zero points, and they must earn points. You need to set this straight from the beginning by making it clear that they are earning points for each assignment. Also, you should make it clear that THEY control their points – you are just reporting on what they do. This can be difficult in classes where they grading is somewhat subjective.
    • Have a rubric for grading: I have a secret. All grading is subjective. As much as we gripe about student evaluations of us, we are constantly evaluating and assessing our students. We have just as much opportunity (more actually) to screw them. We are also biased and can misjudge people. That being said, you should try to be as fair as possible when grading. One way to do that is to make sure you have a rubric when you grade. I also recommend hiding the student names.
    • Other Helpful and Time-Saving Tips:  If you are grading an exam of homework with many problems, you should grade one problem for all students in one sitting. Don’t grade the entire exam and then start on the next entire exam. This will also allow you to stay consistent between students, not look at their name before you grade AND it is much faster, because you can focus on one solution/rubric at a time and not be switching. Most people take 15 minutes to switch between activities, so why would you do this to yourselves??
    • Communicate: All of these policies are for naught if you do not communicate to the students what you are doing or how you are doing it. Fairness is a policy that should be in your syllabus. Most current college students hold this principle above all others. If they prefer for bias (in their favor), you can stick to your principles of fairness in the name of most of the others.
  7. Look accessible. Notice, that I am not saying you should “Be Accessible.” You just need to appear to be accessible. They have to think you are and that helps them realize that you care. Here are a few ways I appear accessible.
    • I have evening office hours. I posted about this before here. Most students could not make my daytime office hours because of other classes and commitments. The office hours are not really office hours, but rather homework sessions which allow me to help more students at one time. It also helps the students to build cohorts. Some students cannot do evenings due to personal issues, and I will make a daytime session, if they ask me, but I prefer evening office hours.
    • I email them back and use instant messenger. This allows me to respond back relatively quickly. I don’t necessarily email back the night before a homework is due, though. I warn them about this before, and tell them it is a conscious, pedagogical choice, so that they will learn to time manage and come to evening office hours. They typically respect this because I am so responsive otherwise.

Whoa! That was a lot of information. Some of it I had touched on or detailed previously, but some of it is new. I hope you find it helpful to keep in mind as you start preparations for Fall semester! Comment or post here, if you have something more to add. I am sure I missed something or there are better ways to do things. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post!

Comments on: "Controlling Their Expectations and Impressions" (3)

  1. Good advises. Making the students know that you care (while being fair), makes a huge difference. I’m relatively small and young looking. My first year of student evaluation included several “she is really cute” comments. Over the years, and using advises like in this and previous posts (yay for the 20% model!), these “cute” or otherwise appearance-related comments have entirely disappeared and replaced unilaterally by “care about her students”.

  2. Excellent advice. I will add two small pieces of advice.

    First: When giving an exam to a large class, there are always a few students who cannot be at the exam. I try to get them all to agree to a common makeup exam time (usually 8 am some morning). I have never come across a situation yet where I thought anybody was trying to take advantage of this exam — I never had a student do dramatically better on a makeup exam as compared to their performance otherwise in the class. I do often modify the makeup exam a bit. But in general, I find allowing students to do a makeup exam is a policy that goes a long way toward showing students that you care.

    Second: Students can have demands that you choose not to grant (extra credit or accepting late homework, as per the examples in the original post). Be sympathetic when you say no. “I’m sorry, I know you would really like to do extra credit and I wish I could give you this opportunity, but it wouldn’t be fair to the other students.” As opposed to “No, it’s not fair to the other students” which at least is way better than “No.” I find a little sympathy goes a long way toward showing that you care. (And heck, I am sympathetic, I was a student once too!) I have seen how bad student evaluations can get for faculty who don’t show sympathy, though.

  3. […] and appearance effectively are essential to your success. I have written about this previously here in the context of the classroom. Your body language can communicate to the class how competent […]

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