Guest post: Be more careful with the vagina stats in teaching
This is a guest post by Courtney Gibbons, an assistant professor of mathematics at Hamilton College. You can see her teaching evaluations on ratemyprofessor.com. She would like you to note that she’s been tagged as “hilarious.” Twice.
Lately, my social media has been blowing up with stories about gender bias in higher ed, especially course evaluations. As a 30-something, female math professor, I’m personally invested in this kind of issue. So I’m gratified when I read about well-designed studies that highlight the “vagina tax” in teaching (I didn’t coin this phrase, but I wish I had).
These kinds of studies bring the conversation about bias to the table in a way that academics can understand. We can geek out on experimental design, the fact that the research is peer-reviewed and therefore passes some basic legitimacy tests.
Indeed, the conversation finally moves out of the realm of folklore, where we have “known” for some time that students expect women to be nurturing in addition to managing the class, while men just need to keep class on track.
Let me reiterate: as a young woman in academia, I want deans and chairs and presidents to take these observed phenomena seriously when evaluating their professors. I want to talk to my colleagues and my students about these issues. Eventually, I’d like to “fix” them, or at least game them to my advantage. (Just kidding. I’d rather fix them.)
However, let me speak as a mathematician for a minute here: bad interpretations of data don’t advance the cause. There’s beautiful link-bait out there that justifies its conclusions on the flimsy “hey, look at this chart” understanding of big data. Benjamin M. Schmidt created a really beautiful tool to visualize data he scraped from the website ratemyprofessor.com through a process that he sketches on his blog. The best criticisms and caveats come from Schmidt himself.
What I want to examine is the response to the tool, both in the media and among my colleagues. USAToday, HuffPo, and other sites have linked to it, citing it as yet more evidence to support the folklore: students see men as “geniuses” and women as “bossy.” It looks like they found some screenshots (or took a few) and decided to interpret them as provocatively as possible. After playing with the tool for a few minutes, which wasn’t even hard enough to qualify as sleuthing, I came to a very different conclusion.
If you look at the ratings for “genius” and then break them down further to look at positive and negative reviews separately, it occurs predominantly in negative reviews. I found a few specific reviews, and they read, “you have to be a genius to pass” or along those lines.
[Don’t take my word for it — search google for:
rate my professors “you have to be a genius”‘
and you’ll see how students use the word “genius” in reviews of professors. The first page of hits is pretty much all men.]
Here’s the breakdown for “genius”:
Similar results occur with “brilliant”:
Now check out “bossy” and negative reviews:
I thought that the phrase “terrible teacher” was more illuminating, because it’s more likely in reference to the subject of the review, and we’ve got some meaningful occurrences:
Who’s doing this reporting, and why aren’t we reading these reports more critically? Journalists, get your shit together and report data responsibly. Academics, be a little more skeptical of stories that simply post screenshots of a chart coupled with inciting prose from conclusions drawn, badly, from hastily scanned data.
Is this tool useless? No. Is it fun to futz around with? Yes.
Is it being reported and understood well? Resounding no!
I think even our students would agree with me: that’s just f*cked up.