Wanna know one of the things that worries me right now, as I draw ever closer to the end of my PhD? This.
You probably saw the article circulating a couple months ago, oh feminists. Slate recaps a recent study of an online course in a large public university in North Carolina that found that women are evaluated more harshly than men in student evaluations. 43 students were divided into four online discussion groups led by two professors, a male and a female–but the woman led one of her two groups to believe she was male, and the man led one of his two groups to believe he was female. The students never saw the face of their instructors, so had no reason not to believe them, and the instructors endeavoured to keep all variables as consistent as possible, submitting feedback concurrently and providing similar biographical information.
And guess whose ratings, ultimately, were the highest? Why, the perceived male, of course, irrespective of the instructor’s actual gender. Even in such non-personality-related issues as promptness of feedback. Their official report, “What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching” (Innovative Higher Education (Dec. 2014)), details how, for example, the perceived male received 4.35 out of 5 for promptness, but “when the same two instructors posted grades at the same time as a female, it was considered to be a 3.55 out of 5 level of promptness. In each case the same instructor, grading under two different identities, was given lower ratings half the time with the only difference being the perceived gender of the instructor” (10). Same went for the category of fairness, even though both instructors used the same grading rubrics and there was no major difference in grades across the groups. Overall “[t]hese findings support the argument that male instructors are often afforded an automatic credibility in terms of their professionalism, expertise, and effectiveness as instructors” (10).
Sigh. Okay. Cool. Other (older) research has shown that women sometimes receive higher ratings than men when they fulfill feminine stereotypes of being nurturing, accessible, available, warm,, welcoming, personable; while, at the same time, exhibiting ‘masculine’ characteristics, like being distant, unavailable, and authoritative, can cause ratings to drop (and students are more forgiving if the same characteristics are displayed by men. Y’know, because men are more serious and shit). And if you’re still not convinced, see also this study, which shows that female instructors face bias in larger courses, exacerbating the gender gap in academia as larger lectures send to result in more opportunities for promotion, hiring, and awards (I have no doubt that some of my fellow bloggers and readers have some stories in this regard).
Of course, I have personal reasons for feeling embittered by this problem in this moment. You ready? Fall 2014 semester course evals!! (insert string of confetti and horn emojis) Yeah, those happened in the last couple weeks. Okay…can I just say that for my age and level of experience, I am a good professor? I know I am. I am very, perhaps overly, devoted. It is possible that my exceeding availability to students in terms of office hours, email response, and individual attention fulfills the feminine nurturing stereotype, but I also know that this approach suits my personality: I love people, I love getting to know people, I love interacting with students and feeling I can build into their lives on a personal level (and I also have the luxury of personal interaction due to small class sizes). But I am also very awaaaaare that I am a thin, young well-dressed, myhusbandthinksImpretty female from Canada who gives off a “cool” and nice vibe, so I tend to combat the possible perception that I’m a softy by maintaining strict standards of grading, especially at the beginning of the semester, when I want to push students to take my class seriously and strive for improvement. Consequently, I receive some backlash, both immediate and longer term. As an example of immediate backlash, I present to you this bogus Rate My Professor rating, mostly because it is JUST. SO. FUNNY. (posted mid-sem; and yeah, I’m pretty sure I know who this was):
Although I am ultimately perfectly happy to distribute As where As are deserved (and so grade for improvement throughout the course), and although I ran two great Composition I classes last semester, with bright and engaged students who demonstrated measurable improvement in their writing and with whom I had some fun, important, memorable, rigorous discussions about relevant topics like racism and feminism and social media and the TV series Scandal…the official evaluations are not that great. I mean, they’re fine. But 50% of the students did not respond (aaaarrrghhhh), which of course, based on the Golden Rule of Yelp, means that the more disgruntled ones were more likely to respond in the first place, let alone provide detailed feedback. My courses were not perfect, obviously, and my pedagogical strategies have ample room for growth as I progress as a professor (fingers crossed), but there is a world of a disconnect between these mechanical numbers and scant comments, and the actual lived experience of being in the classroom.
Admittedly, a large factor at play may just be the response rate, as I received quite a bit of positive informal feedback (a number of students asked if I was teaching Comp II this semester so they could take me again, and I received a healthy smattering of lovely thank-you emails post-course, bless them). If I’ve learned one thing from this experience, it’s that at the end of this semester, as I teach my first lit course, I am hella gonna sit those students in the classroom and make them fill out the evals in front of me, because it is clear they do not quite understand their import and can’t be trusted to fill them out on their own.
But I have some reason to believe that some of my struggles with authority and with managing this masculinized “
touch tough grader” perception relate to a gender bias in the academy. And hey, I’m going on the job market next year, so this isn’t just about hurt feelings.
Do you have any stories about gendered student feedback that you’d be comfortable sharing in the comments? Or, what can be done about all this? Is there some way we can share such findings with our students without coming across as pandering? Or are the structural problems just rooted too deep?
Back at the beginning of February, my least favourite newspaper reported on UBC’s decision to give all tenure-track, female faculty members a 2 per cent raise. Part of the rationale in extending the raise to all women, and not only those identified as underpaid, was to streamline what would have been an otherwise time-consuming process of identifying individual cases of income inequity. It also, intentionally, makes a strong statement about persistent gender income inequity in academia. By applying the increase across the board, UBC effectively said that this is an issue about gender and about women, rather than reducing it to individual circumstance.
This is an important statement to make given that the article appeared just days before a report published by the Conference Board of Canada, looking at “How Canada Performs: Society.” While Canada achieved a B grade overall, one of the key areas with only a C grade was the gender income gap. Here Canada ranked 11th out of 17 “peer countries,” and, although the gender income gap has narrowed in recent years, the C grade has remained steady since the 1980s.
What was most striking to my eye in the Conference Board report was the chart near the bottom of the page detailing relative earnings of women and men by occupation. The data for this chart comes from 2010 and the discussion notes, “Unfortunately, the 2011 census did not gather data on income differences by gender and education.” I assume that this was a casualty of the Harper government’s decision to do away with the long-form census in 2011 but I don’t know this for certain (and I would welcome being corrected or confirmed in the comments). Such a move would be entirely consistent with the Harper government’s track record on gender and equality. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to separate out academic from other occupations, given the manner in which the information is presented. Nevertheless, I assume that professors come under the category of that includes education, placing us in a category that earns, on average, 70% of our male counterparts (again, please correct me if I’m wrong).
Certainly, there is only so much that one can do with the data as presented here. For instance, I’m not going to assume that I’m only earning 70% of what the men in my department, at my rank, earn. That said this report does demonstrate that for as much as I would like to think that I am being paid equitably relative to my male counterparts, I might not be. More importantly, other women certainly are not. So where do the persistent gender-based income inequities come from?
Nevertheless, how does childbirth and parental leave translate into gender-based income inequality at the UofA? If you are a tenure-track faculty member, each year you have to submit a report detailing your research, teaching, and service work from July 1 to June 30. This annual report is then used as the basis to determine how much of a merit increase you will receive, over and above any across the board increases negotiated by our faculty association. I’m going to spare you the incredibly boring details of our increment process, suffice it to say that it’s a 3 point scale (but as far as I know, no one ever gets a 3), if you get 0s or a string of 0.5s, you’re in trouble, especially pre-tenure. So you aim for 1s or higher.
Merit increments that you get early on in your career have the longest potential impact, therefore for women who go on childbirth leave (most of whom do so earlier in their career) if their merit increment in that year suffers, their salary over their career suffers with it. And it makes a difference when you are a woman giving birth. The period for which your pay is topped up is 15 weeks for childbirth leave, 10 weeks for parental leave. Each parent is eligible for parental leave and each parent is also eligible for additional unpaid leave (up to one year total) although in this time you only get EI, which if you have a mortgage or another child in daycare, is a recipe for financial disaster. But what all this means is that women giving birth to children, unsurprisingly, go on more leave than their partners and as a result are more likely to not teach in any given year, have limited service commitments (because much service work in a department or university is a year or longer commitment), or have less research output. Meaning they have less to report on come year-end.
There are ways in which our evaluation process attempts to accommodate this issue. If you are on leave for less than 6 months of the year, your performance for the year as a whole is extrapolated based on what you did in the time you were working. It’s crude math, but if you got x amount of work done in 6 months, that work is multiplied by 2 to provide a basis for evaluation for the year as a whole. This means of accommodating the issues created by leave does work for some women.
But – and here’s one rub – if you’re on leave for more than 6 months in any given reporting year, there is no formula for extrapolation. In this case, you’re conceivably better off slacking off at work for the time that you are back, because there’s little to no assurance that you will be appropriately rewarded for what effort you do put in. Ultimately though, each year when you are awarded a 0 or a 0.5 translates into thousands of dollars less income then if you were awarded a 1, in the course of a 30-year career.
Scholarly publishing is broken–at least journal publishing, and at least in my experience–and I don’t want to be complicit in this brokenness anymore, just because it serves some of my purposes, some of the time.
Most loftily, we scholars imagine that we are creating new knowledge, and that new knowledge is a good thing, that it can move our collective human project forward, in some small way. It gets moved only once this new knowledge is publicized. Hence, scholarly publishing.
Much less loftily, scholarship is a kind of labour that we exchange for tokens of esteem, power, and reputation, the currency of the academy. The recognized coin of this realm is peer-reviewed, published pages. Hence, scholarly publishing.
I know that I want to create new knowledge, and change the world! And if I can get a full professorship into the bargain, as well as win the disciplinary and institutional pissing contests by which goods are allotted within the Ivory Tower, well, all the better.
These goals can conflict.
And so it is that I find myself in the weird position of having an article scheduled to appear in Women Communication Scholarship (pseudonym) and am ambivalent, even angry, about it. My little story indicates at least one small way that scholarly publication is broken, and how some of it is our own damn fault. Is my fault.
What’s making me angry is that I submitted to this journal because of its high reputation, its high rejection rate, its mass adoption by academic libraries … and it turns out that they have a standing two year delay on publication. Let me be perfectly clear: once you go through the whole year of being reviewed and re-reviewed and your piece is accepted, your publication date will be TWO FURTHER YEARS IN THE FUTURE. I expressed some shock to the editor when she sent me my August 2014 publication date, in April 2012. She is shocked, too, having witnessed the creeping commercialization of this work over a generation of editorship. But this delay is their new standard. They have a perpetual backlog of submissions and accepted papers, because of their impact, and because they are published by a commercial publisher, who will not let them clear this out with some double print issues, they will have a TWO YEAR DELAY FOR THE REST OF THE WORLD.
Now, I work in new media. My article will be about three years old when it finally appears. Older, actually, because it’s based on a survey that took some time to complete. It will be historical by the time it appears. It’s going to be out of the page proofs stage by Labour day of this year, then SIT IN A DIGITAL DRAWER FOR TWO MORE YEARS before it gets printed. As the bemused editor wrote to me, the brave new world of academic editing of commercially-published journals “both requires that we publish scholarship and that we don’t publish scholarship.”
This seems really, really wrong.
I consulted Twitter. My friends and colleagues in digital humanities were appalled. Some suggested pulling the article and submitting it somewhere with a faster turnaround. Some suggested back-door self-publishing–that is, use the citation information from the “forthcoming” journal and put the paper online somewhere so people could read it before it becomes irrelevant. I like this idea of guerrilla self-publishing.
I consulted my chair, who consulted my dean. They, by contrast, congratulated me on having my work “appear” in such a high profile venue, and told me to leave it there. I should not retract the article to publish it elsewhere with a lower impact factor, just to get it into readers’ hands. I could put it on my CV, they said, and it would “count” this year. So I will get a raise for heaving my work into a deep well. I must confess I like this idea, too, of appearing successful and important among my peers, and getting a raise, to boot.
To summarize: I get lots of chest-beating institutional credit for this “publication.” But no one actually gets to read my scholarship. It all leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.
This current publishing system is broken. It pits our desires for reputation and stature against a true public good, and removes the whole thing from academic hands to place it into commercial ones who have been quite canny at exploiting our desires for status and our lack of desire for detail work in marketing, bean counting, and publication.
As for me, I’m leaving the article where it is: this is the third journal I’ve submitted it to (it’s interdisciplinary and I have had the misfortune of getting one glowing and one damning review every where else it’s travelled) and I really want this work stamped with approval and circulating, however distant the future in which that happens. As a compromise between my ambitions and my scruples, I asked the editor if I could put a “pre-print” online, and she said it’s technically not allowed but that she understands, informally, that many other people do it. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
I ask you: if an article falls into the Taylor and Francis journal system and no one gets to read it, is any new knowledge created? If we’re all circulating these papers “pre-print” why are we bothering with these commercial publications at all, except for personal professional gain? And what should we do?
Right now, I’m on my sixth conference / presentation / workshop trip of the last nine weeks. Let me just say that if I never get on an airplane again for another year (barring the flight home from here of course) it will still be too soon.
Still, traveling and conferencing and workshopping is great, and one of the reasons is the opportunity to catch up with old friends, with mentors, with former students, and to make new contacts. This latest round of travel for me has felt really strange and wonderful because, for me, it feels a little like a victory lap: I got on my first plane right around the time my tenure was confirmed, and as I had tweeted and facebooked and emailed my friends about it, word spread. Every where I went, people congratulated me, sincerely and joyfully. People I knew well, and people I hardly knew at all. That really made it real for me, and even when Air Canada lost my Congress-bound luggage and I had to present in yesterday’s traveling clothes (hilariously, on a social media panel, wearing a t-shirt that reads “I have tenure and I blog”), I still felt supported and comfortable. Well, as comfortable you can be in a yoga bra in public, without a belt to hold your pants up. (I don’t like to set off the metal detector at the airport …)
What were we talking about? Oh, right. Men and why I’m thanking them particularly, today.
What has really struck me, this spring, is how much of my career and its success I owe to, well, men. Men who have supported me, even when I told them our field was dominated by middle-aged white guys. Men who held a plum gig for me even when I bowed up one year, to give birth, and plenty of others would have been happy to take my spot, and keep it. Men who wrote letters explaining what I contributed to a collaboration. Men who happily agreed to explain how work in my field doesn’t look like regular English professing, and what it’s worth. Men–high-profile, senior, busy men–wrote obviously very supportive reviews of my tenure file.
I knew that the colleagues I had solicited to write support letters for me were awesome. But as I travelled around this spring, tenure assessors came out of the woodwork, eager to know what had happened and very eager to wish me well. Other interested parties made a point of welcoming me to the next stage of my career, expressing genuine support for my work.
We talk a lot here about women moving up the ranks and taking positions of power and influence as chairs or deans or full professors or even vocal members of hiring committees. But for a moment I want to recognize the men who’ve made my climb a little smoother, my ascent a little higher than it might otherwise have been. Starting even with the man who emailed me to solicit my application for the job at which I’ve just been tenured.
Thanks, guys. I’m impressed by your caring, and by your outreach, and humbled by your support. Now, let’s tenure and promote some more women so they can share some of this avuncular glory 😉
Our first guest post of the ‘summer’! Jo Van Every had the classic experience of writing a humongous comment on a post here, and then watching it get eaten by Blogger. Luckily for us, she channeled her disappearing-comment energies into writing a full-fledged post, and it’s very topical: as conference season launches, it’s a good time to think about the “communication of scholarly results,” as our funders express it.
This post was inspired by Aimée’s post Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. I have used examples from her post for the sake of convenience. Feel free to substitute names of journals and conferences in your field as you read.
I’ve written on my own blog about the tensions between publishing for validation and publishing for communication. While you will be judged (and validated as a scholar) based on your publications, the primary reason for publishing and presenting your work at conferences, public lectures, or wherever, should be to communicate.
If you have a communication orientation to your work, the recycling issue appears in a very different light.
Audience makes a difference
The list of occasions on which Aimée had presented similar work looked to me like it spanned a range of different audiences:
I’ve been joking that what I’ve been creating this week, in preparation, is a “Frankenpaper”: parts of Saturday’s 15 minute conference paper is built from text I created for a public talk in the Digital Media Series at Stratford, reworked for a lecture celebrating 50 years of the Faculty of Arts at UW, and then reframed in a minor way for an invited lecture hosted by the MA in Humanities at Laurentian University in Sudbury. Incidentally, those talks all revisited ideas and prose I first considered and wrote in 2005, for the Reader’s Forum of English Studies in Canada. Still with me? Okay. My conference paper is also built from an article I’ve recently submitted to Biography–which was written from the ideas I pulled together for a different conference paper for last summer’s International Auto/Biography Association conference in Sussex. Oops, I did pull stuff right from the conference paper, too, that I had removed from the article version of that research. The Keynote slides draw from the Stratford/Arts/Sudbury presentation, as well as from the IABA presentation.
The audiences for those various public talks are unlikely to overlap. Local events, like celebrations of 50 years of the Faculty of Arts, draw a local crowd. Public talks have a different audience from academic conferences. And different academic conferences have different groups of people. The Auto/Biography crowd are not the same as the English Studies crowd. (I know, for example, that there are sociologists in the former.)
The same can be said for different print (or online) publications. The people who read Biography are not the same as the people who read English Studies in Canada. And they certainly aren’t the same people who read journals in communication studies, digital media, or whatever.
The fact that you’ve heard it before doesn’t mean everyone in your audience has heard it before.
Audience also affects the content
In addition, each of those presentations/publications will not be exactly the same.
All research communication contributes to ongoing conversations. Those may be formal theoretical conversations happening in peer reviewed academic journals. Or they may be public debates taking place in the mainstream media and people’s living rooms. The general public are interested in your research in a different way than the students in an MA in Humanities, or your disciplinary colleagues at an academic conference. And you want to communicate something different to those different audiences, too. You will be engaging with them in different ways.
You will also contextualize your findings (empirical, conceptual, theoretical) in ways that are relevant to a particular audience. A paper for the International Auto/Biography Association will be different from a paper for English Studies in Canada because you have to make different assumptions about the audience’s familiarity with particular debates that you engage with, at the very least. A public presentation on Digital Media is more likely to be contextualized in public debates happening in mainstream media than theoretical debates happening in academic journals.
Chances are that you are publishing/presenting to those different audiences because you have contributions to make to different debates and those debates are happening in different places. Although the content overlaps, you have something slightly different to say about your research to those different audiences.
Again, just because you’ve said this before doesn’t mean you have. Or that you’ve said it in a way that this audience can engage with.
People need to hear what you have to say
Presenting/publishing in multiple venues is not “recycling” so much as giving people multiple opportunities to come across your work. If you only produce one publication/presentation from a given research project, you rely on the people that need to know what you’ve discovered/created finding that one place where you’ve told anyone about it.
It’s like the proverbial light under the bushel. It’s there. And if you know it’s there and lift up the bushel basket, you can see the light. But most people aren’t going to notice. If you have something worth saying, it’s worth saying in venues (live, online, in print) where the people who need to hear it can find it easily. You don’t need big gaudy neon signs but you need to be visible.
In doing this remember that any oral presentation is reaching a much smaller potential audience than a written publication. People are there to hear it or not. Whereas a print (including online) publication can be engaged with at another time, even years later. One reason to turn your academic conference papers into academic journal articles is to make them accessible to people that weren’t there, including people that won’t even be interested in your topic until 2 years from now. And if you want to reach people who don’t read academic journals, you need to also publish your work in venues they frequent — blogs, magazines, public talks, etc.
That ability to access the paper asynchronously (to use the fancy online learning jargon) also means that readers/listeners can refer others to your work. Maybe Jane heard your paper at that conference and thought it was really interesting. She knows people who could really use that knowledge. Is there a way for her to tell people about it and get them access to what you presented/published?
Validation is still important
The processes that validate your work as an academic only recognize some of those publications: the ones that communicate to audiences they value. If you want recognition and validation by peers in your discipline then presenting at conferences in your discipline and publishing in peer reviewed journals in your discipline is important. The fact that you also communicate to peers in cognate disciplines or interdisciplinary fields is likely to enhance your reputation in your field. Those publications will probably not substitute for publications in your discipline.
Communicating to non-academic audiences may also be valued in this additional way, though peers are likely to wonder what the time you spend on that is taking away from things they value more.
The question is, why are you writing/presenting? Who do you want to reach? What do you value? Organize your publication/presentation strategy accordingly.
In the end, you are probably more at risk of publishing too little than publishing too much. Stop worrying about recycling.
O, the teaching evaluation.
Often eviscerating, periodically baffling, and sometimes edifying. (OK, always edifying if one can take a step back and read them using some of Tenured Radical’s tips) What do teaching evaluations tell us about the institution in which we work? What do they tell us about our students? I daresay the teaching evaluation has something to tell us about the profession of professing that extends beyond a single course (this is something Heather brought up from a different angle some months ago)
Evaluations are on my mind for two pressing reasons: first, it is January, and we’ve just received the evaluations of fall 2010 courses. Second, because I am on the job market and without a dossier service to do it for me, I go through evaluations to select examples for my teaching portfolio. I find myself wondering what the evaluations say about the state of the institution as a whole. Of course, as the representative for the institution, I also find myself trying to interpret what the students are evaluating when they evaluate me.
Sure, my teaching evaluations are, on the whole, pretty good. What I mean by ‘good’ is this:
-When asked to comment on the “course content and organization,” students generally speak to the texts (whether they liked or disliked them, whether they felt the texts were useful for the course itself). Mostly, they say ‘yes,’ and generally when there are concerns with the texts the students speak to why they didn’t feel the texts were useful.
-When asked to comment on the instructor’s success in making the course interesting and intellectually stimulating, they generally speak to just that: my carriage in the classroom, or my ability–or disability–to demonstrate, generate, and sustain intellectually rigorous conversation.
Which is to say that for the most part students respond to the material as well as my efficacy as an instructor. And that’s useful for me on a number of levels.
However, things get a little more complicated when asked to comment on any of the instructor’s “special qualities” as a teacher (including “specific complaints” and “constructive suggestions”). Here students tend to address my personality and, sometimes, my mode of dress. I suspect that in part the variety of responses may have to do with the way that the question is posed (what makes a quality “special,” for example? Is this an earnest or a sarcastic question?) They have commented on my intelligence (or lack there of, in a few stinging cases), my approachability, my inapproachability, my overuse of theoretical language, my over-simplified language, and my shoes. These aren’t terrible responses; they are–or can be–edifying, and I’m slowly trying to learn to make use of them rather than take them to heart.
But here’s the open secret I find myself returning to each time I think about or read evaluations: some of us statistically rate lower on student evaluations. That would be women and minorities, not to mention women who are minorities of various kinds. shh! Which is to say that while it is sometimes impossible to prove for certain (and other times devastatingly easy to prove) that a given response is based on one’s gender or skin tone, or accent, or orientation the fact remains that it *might.* And that’s a problem, especially given that evaluations are used for job applications, as well as tenure and promotion. I believe–or want to believe–that members of/in the profession know how to read evaluations. But to what extent does this open secret reflect some deeper issues in the academy?
For me some of these deeper issues include a systematic failure to address inequity, systematic discrimination, and maybe, just maybe, a general failure to talk about these lived realities in a large-scale way that manages not to make them feel like they are someone else’s problem. Or worse, that these are “problems” that have been dealt with already.
And further, as Canadian universities continue the move to making student evaluations public (a move that I’m not certain I am against in principle, mind you) to what extent is the gendering and racing of evaluations made a significant part of the conversation? What would it look like to choose to make the communal aspects of the teaching evaluation–that we who teach all get them, that we are being evaluated on our own, but also as representatives (fairly or un-) of what the university looks like–public amongst our colleagues?
So what can I–an instructor who depends on “good” evaluations to get a contract renewal–do to address these fundamentally important issues? I don’t have the power to suggest a systematized teaching evaluation, and frankly the notion of such a thing smacks of over-systemization of public education. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about by way of making some change in the classroom:
-I’ve started introducing course by having the student spend 10 minutes early in the term writing about their values and concerns (I didn’t know about this study until recently, but it would seem I certainly haven’t invented this). The idea here is that they articulate their values to themselves and to me. I work to integrate their values, concerns, etc. into lectures about the material.
-I also have the students set three goals for themselves in the course. This seems to get them thinking about what they want to learn, and it also seems to underscore that this is a collaborative process. Sure, I’m the professor, but I use this exercise to stress that their intellectual participation is vital for a rich, engaged classroom.
-I often do mid-term evaluations of the class.
-I’ve started talking about my evaluations, for one thing. On a personal level, and as a relatively new member of the department, it helps to hear about other colleagues’s experiences. On an institutional level, discussing the form, function, and trends of the evaluation process as a department would get the larger, more trenchant issues into an open discourse.
What strategies do you employ when reading your own evaluations, the evaluations of applicants, or your colleagues? What are your thoughts on making evaluations public? (Don’t forget that they kind of already are) And what can we do about interrogating and interpreting the language of the evaluation when it asks, for example, about “special qualities?”
*For a very few of the many examples out there, you can see the CAUT policy on evaluations here (note the caution in part 1), you can see Vanderbilt’s large accumulation of data here, a related post about the gender and service here, and for personal perspectives you can read Alfred Young Man on being a Native teacher in Canada here, and a compelling anonymous guest post at University of Venus here
One of the delights of a career well spent, I’m learning, is a world full of former graduate students.
My partner and I spent a marvelous Monday evening with LGT, who finished her PhD here in 2001 (her defense was the week after September 11th) and landed a job at a small college in the deep south of the USA. It’s probably not the job she imagined – did I mention, the deep south? – but she has flourished. She is, I confirmed last night, a marvelous teacher. I saw her Teacher Look and I heard her Teacher Voice, both of which are awe-inspiring (and, therefore, awe-some, though usually to different audiences). She told stories about her colleagues and her classes, her triumphs and her questions. She has established an annual lecture series; she is working on her second book; she is tenured and promoted. We talked about her grad school experience ten years out. All evening I just kept thinking how proud I am of the person she’s become and what a gift it is to work with someone like her.
This morning, a current graduate student aced her candidacy exams. This afternoon, I started organizing the thesis defense for yet another brilliant student. And although we haven’t said this explicitly, Aimee, aka digiwonk, aka Friday’s blogger, completed her PhD under my supervision too.
It’s a world of amazing people that just keeps growing.
Next week at my school the Faculty Evaluation Committee will hole up for five continuous days to evaluate the successes and failures of the academic year. They will proceed with scrupulous procedural fairness; whether that’s what the academy needs – whether that’s what women in the academy need – remains, for me, an open question. Increments will be handed out and moved around and reconsidered. Nonetheless, at the end of the week many people will feel that their teaching is unrecognized, their research undervalued, their service made invisible. FEC can make you feel like crap, but even when it rewards you, it’s nothing like spending an evening with a fully fledged colleague and friend.
As I like to say, when all else fails it’s nice to have your integrity to fall back on.
Dear [admissions / hiring / scholarship / fellowship / internship] committee. I am writing to you to support [student / colleague / supervisee / former student / prospective student]’s application …
How many of these letters have you had written on your behalf? How many have you written for others? How many have you read, as a member of the ‘dear committee’ in question? Letters of recommendation pervade academic culture, and the world outside it. So take a minute, and go and read this: “Reference Letters Cost Women Jobs” at Futurity.org. Go. Then come back. (Thank you to reader Heidi for bringing this to our attention, btw.)
Are you agog? I am.
Reference letters are hard. They’re hard to write and hard to read. They are consequential, and treated with some reverence and a lot of formality. A reference letter is held in strictest confidence, on the understanding that the letter writer is speaking some hard or secret truth to a committee of whatever sort, a truth whose utterance can only be assured by this guarantee of confidence. A graduate admissions committee is committing to support, say, an incoming PhD student for a minimum of four years: we want to know what we’re getting into! A hiring committee is looking to make a huge commitment to a potential colleague–we hope a reference letter will help us pick those three candidates out of the pool of 50 that we might best interview.
But reference letters are also often written in code. They are increasingly prey to the cult of the superlative, where all the adverbs (fantastically! superbly! tremendously! extremely! immensely!) we’ve worked so hard to prune from our other writings magically reappear, because we need to make the applicants we write for stand out. It seems like every applicant is always ranked in the “top 2%” of everyone the referee has ever had contact with. This paradox requires careful interpretation of the narrative portions of the letter.
There is also a kind of reference letter that seems to be written under duress: where the referee has tried gently or not-so-gently to dissuade an applicant, who nonetheless insists on getting said letter. These are easily enough deciphered by committees, but they never come right out and say, “I don’t want to write this letter, because I don’t think this student is ready for grad school.” Instead, they usually say something like “While I am happy to help out X with her application, I cannot be as thorough as I might be had I taught her in a course other than the 500 person introductory survey six years ago.”
In my time at Waterloo, I have written more than 40 different reference letters for students. I have served on the university committee that ranks SSHRC graduate fellowship applications. I spent three years on the graduate committee readings SSHRC and OGS apps, as well as applications to the program. I have spent three years on the appointments committee. I have read hundreds and hundreds of reference letters, all written in some form of code.
So this article has knocked my socks off. It’s not that I’m so terribly surprised that, generally, that gendered language is used to describe job candidates and students. It’s that the code words the article notes are ones I very much recognize as keywords I look for when evaluating letters. I do tend to be impressed by some of the descriptors coded female, and less impressed by some of those coded male. But over all, I hadn’t noticed these as gendered, and a lot of the ones from the feminized list of descriptors I have often understood to be code for “not that smart or accomplished.”
Let me tell you, I’ve been digging through all the reference letters on my computer that I’ve written for others. And I find myself largely innocent of gender-torpedoing those I’ve written for. But I’m sure as hell going to be a lot more conscious of this as I read all the letters I use to evaluate candidates, and more careful still of how I write them.