Buzz, buzz, buzz! I jolt up to shut my alarm off. It’s 5:00 a.m. on Monday morning and time to begin my daily routine. Coffee, read, write. I take a moment to breathe and reflect on what is to come from the day as I must prep to teach later. I know I will need extra time to straighten my hair, identify professional clothing, and put together Professor Garcia. Unfortunately, I have learned through the years the act of performing “what a professor looks like.” How I present and perform in the university classroom has vast implications for myself as a woman of color in the academy.
I started teaching as a graduate student in the University of California system. The first time I was a teaching assistant I became aware of how my evaluations would impact my academic career. I received evaluations often stating: “a hot tamale,” “she is sexy,” “angry and rude,” “wears bright colors,” and “nice with a side of sass.”
These comments have followed me to every institution, which have been research intensive, predominately, or historically White universities. These student evaluations did not reflect my ability to deliver course content or competency in the subject matter I was assigned to teach. Rather, they explicate the sexualization and stereotypes prescribed to Latinas in society. Individuals might want to question “what is the big deal?” or “why can you not take a compliment?” As a Latina who is a newly minted assistant professor pursuing tenure, student evaluations will impact my promotion.
In June 2018, BethAnne McLaughlin, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University turned to Twitter to comment on a “chili pepper” feature by Rate My Professor, a public non-university based online teaching evaluation system. She stated: “Dear @ratemyprofessor, Life is hard enough for female professors. Your ‘chili pepper’ rating of our ‘hotness’ is obnoxious and utterly irrelevant to our teaching. Please remove it because #TimesUp and you need to do better. Thanks, Female College Prof.”
This tweet went viral quickly. Rate My Professor eventually responded by removing the feature, but McLaughlin makes a significant point by stating “you need to do better.” I would argue, we can all do better.However, academia as a system needs to reconsider what student evaluations actually mean for non-tenured professors.
As we gear up for another academic year, I want to provide a couple insights for everyone to consider when encountering women of color or marginalized professors on campus.
In 2018, Kristina Mitchell and Johnathan Martin authored a report titled, “Gender Bias in Student Evaluations” for the American Political Science Association documenting the relationship between gender and student evaluations of professors. They found that women were evaluated differently than men by their students in two different ways. First, “women are evaluated more on personality and appearance…and labeled a ‘teacher’ than a ‘professor.” Second, when personality, appearance, and various other factors are controlled for, “women are rated more poorly than men in identical courses.”
The intersections of race and gender also influence the ways in which women and marginalized individuals are perceived in the classroom. Sylvia Lazos in “Are Student Teaching Evaluations Holding Back Women and Minorities? The Perils of ‘Doing” Gender and Race in the Classroom,” concludes her empirical research by confirming that yes, teaching evaluations are harmful for tenure and promotion among these populations. It is important to recognize that this is a systemic problem across all institutional types, which gets played out and onto the lives of disenfranchised faculty daily.
While more research is needed in this area before we see institutional change, our stories are alive. I suggest we keep telling them. I tell stories to the next generation of scholars not to prevent them from pursuing academia, but to present the reality of what it means to be a faculty of color. I choose to share because I can no longer stay silent. I read my teaching evaluations as markers of how to improve my teaching, not my attire, personality, or physical attributes. I am a competent, young, Ph.D professor who is Latina.
Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is an assistant professor of higher education at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia.