Course Evaluations and a Chat With Nana

“Universal course evaluations” may need to be disaggregated by race to be fair and balanced.

Preparing my dossier for tenure is a dreadful process. The worst part is going through each co-authored piece and deciding who did what by percentages. The process makes my shoulders hurt and my eye twitch uncontrollably. You see, Afrocentric, critical race and womanist worldviews are framed around collaboration. These frameworks typically do not ask who did what when working together. I am totally out of my element. It feels like showing up at the basketball court only to find out that your teammates play Parcheesi instead.

Nevertheless, I and other colleagues are all going up for tenure at the same time — In essence, misery unfortunately will have some company. Well, sort of. There are some differences. However, my colleagues seem to be more concerned about the number of publications. Pubs count — end of story. I am more concerned about the course evaluations. In fact, I bet that many folks of color are more concerned about evaluations than about publications. I would argue there is definitely a counternarrative.

Our evaluations are compared to something called a universal average. The problem is that folks of color tend to receive lower course evaluations than the “universal average” faculty member (no surprise, according to the research). At our institution, African-American faculty compose about 2 percent of the entire faculty. I argue that this may be a good time to disaggregate those “universal” evaluations by race — to be fair and balanced just like the news. Right?

Nevertheless, I have been commiserating to a point of exhaustion. In 2006, William Smith coined what I have been experiencing as racial battle fatigue (RBF). He explains that racial micro-aggressions are latent or offensive remarks or actions that dominant groups rarely see as racist yet are experienced by people of color as assaults. I have it. I know. My hands sweat. My heart palpitates, and lately, the micro-aggressions have heightened to macro-aggressions. For instance, the other day, while working on my personal statement at the racquet club, I was privy to the most hateful conversation about another human being I have heard in a while. Always priding myself on confronting folks’ ignorance, this time I was so stunned I could not open my big trap.

What happened? A woman seated near me was discussing the “stupidity” of President Barack Obama with another friend. Why don’t they — I assumed she meant Democrats — just admit that they had made a mistake she said. I am thinking, OK, he has been in office since January, and it is now March, so you have already evaluated his performance? I was formulating my response when I was stung by the bite of the vitriol that was to follow. She described a group called “them” as stupid, lazy, having no brains, and just downright disgusting. She said she hated them. They don’t pay their bills. They don’t pay their taxes. They are just stupid. I thought, was she really talking about Democrats? Who was the “them”? Did it matter? She needed some schooling — and it did not matter who she was talking about. Either way, I was included in the pool of thems, and I believe that I was the only one of the “them” to whom she referred in the racquet club at the time.

Again, I am usually that annoying voice in the meeting or venue who takes some stance, and have often been referred to as the angry Black woman, which I have never been quite able to understand. I wonder what do you call folks who sit back and watch other folks be verbally and mentally abused? I think we commonly refer to those folks as cowards or accomplices. My blood boiled and my heart raced, triggering the onset of RBF. What speech was I to lay on her before I screamed? I looked around to see whether anyone else was offended. Everyone just seemed puzzled and tried to pretend like nothing was happening. It reminded me, on a smaller scale, of a show I had watched where a man in a pizza parlor was beaten while bystanders watched and pretended like it was not happening. I phoned my husband, who told me, just know that Barack is constantly being evaluated by hateful folks. Imagine having to have that kind of feedback everyday of your life. Like the dreaded course evaluations? I shuddered. Nope, worse my dear.

As I prepared my speech, the vitriolic woman’s attention was directed to the door. Two small children were walking in. “Say hi to Nana,” a woman with the children shouted across the room. Nana hugged and spoke to them with all the sugar and spice most grandmothers have for their little darlings. I was stunned by how easily she was able to code switch from a language of hate to one of love. Then I had another revelation: those two children will be privy to all of Nana’s vitriol for the next 20-some odd years. Thinking about someone’s course evaluations 20 years from now, I walked over to Nana and asked for a moment of her time. She said she did not have one and was clearly shaken by my audacity. You know, I’m not supposed to be angered by mental torture, psychological attacks, and mal intent. I waited. She never emerged from the locker room. I guess I will just have to wait until next week or the week after, but I will chat with Nana. I will also not worry so much about my course evaluations.

— Dr. Robin Lee Hughes is an assistant professor of higher education student affairs at Indiana University Bloomington.



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