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Welcome to Teaching, a free weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This week:

  • I describe the ways in which professors’ gender influences how students perceive them, as shown in a tool that mines student evaluations from RateMyProfessors.
  • I share stories from instructors who teach in unconventional ways.

What Millions of Course Evaluations Tell Us About How Students See Their Professors

Student evaluations of teaching are both widely used and, as a host of studies have shown, deeply flawed. They don’t measure teaching quality particularly well. They also reflect students’ bias, in that women and minorities tend to receive more critical evaluations. The problem is significant enough that 18 scholarly associations signed onto a statement in September asking colleges to not rely on them heavily in determining teaching effectiveness.

Thanks to Ben Schmidt, a clinical associate professor of history and director of digital humanities at New York University, we also have an interesting way to visualize the differences in the ways that students evaluate male and female professors. And we can see how different disciplines are described.

A few years ago, Schmidt mined 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessors to create an interactive tool, Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews. Plug a term into the chart and you can see how many times per million words of text it is used, broken down by gender and discipline. It’s a fascinating — and highly addictive — look at the way in which students perceive their professors. At times the results can seem absurd.

Schmidt’s original plan was to write an article about the tool, which he created in 2015. But, he says, “I couldn’t quite figure out what that article would say, so I just put it online.”

The tool turned out to be quite popular: People have entered about 50,000 to 100,000 search terms every month. “It’s been interesting because I see a lot of people use it for a lot of different things,” Schmidt says, including introductory teaching workshops and diversity training programs. While data from RateMyProfessors obviously has limitations — the reviews are voluntary, for one — Schmidt says that a lot of his findings correlate with what the research shows about how students evaluate professors differently, based on gender.

So, how do students describe their male and female professors? Let’s take a look.

Who’s funnier? Men, apparently. Male psychology professors, it seems, are particularly hilarious. Men are so funny, in fact, that even the most somber among them — that would be engineering professors — are funnier than most women, scoring 797 references per million words of text, a higher number than women in 16 other disciplines.

But take heart, female psychology professors. Like your male counterparts, you’re also funnier than your female colleagues in every other discipline.

Here’s a look at who comes out on top based on other terms. Let’s start with a few used to describe intelligence:

Brilliant: That would be men, by a long shot. In every discipline students are more likely to call a male professor brilliant than a female one, with the biggest gap in English. There are also certain disciplines that attract that term more than others. Professors in philosophy hear that word the most, male and female. Accounting: not so much.

Intelligent: Men are given the edge here, too, in every discipline except criminal justice. Expert is also more likely used to describe men in most disciplines, although not many students use that label.

Then there’s a group of terms that describe personality.

Mean: Women are more likely, in every discipline, to be described as mean. The same holds true for rude, demanding, and crazy.

But there’s also this:

Nice: Women are described this way much more frequently in every discipline, and by a noticeable margin. Also, who is more likely to be caring and warm? Yup: women.

Schmidt says this seeming paradox can be explained by the fact that students often evaluate men and women using different criteria. Men are more likely to be evaluated on their intelligence, negatively or positively. Women are more likely to be evaluated on personality traits, like whether they are caring.

I also typed in a frequent complaint by students:

Boring: Men, you win this one. The most boring among you are anthropologists. Yet you are also the most interesting. Go figure.

And on a final note of confusion:

Unprepared and prepared: Women are more often described as one or the other, compared to men, although the term “prepared” is used more frequently, overall. So, chalk one up for women?

Schmidt says he hopes the tool “can take the sting out” of some negative evaluations by illustrating how gender bias plays a factor. “Evaluations are such a personal thing and when you read them you feel like these are really about me,” he says. “But there is this really strong structural thing about the way that language is used to describe people.”

Reader Responses: Unusual Ways of Teaching

A couple weeks ago I wrote about an introductory chemistry course in which students were asked to get out of their seats and act like atoms. I asked readers to tell me if they, too, used unconventional ways of teaching. I got some great responses. Here are a few:

  • Russell Fielding, a visiting lecturer of environmental studies at the University of the West Indies-Cave Hill, has used embodied cognition in his earth science classes. “To help students comprehend the timescale at which climate change affects glaciers and glacially dependent landscapes,” he writes, “I incorporate a meditation-based breathing exercise, in which each deep inhale represents a winter of snow and ice accumulation, each exhale represents a summer of ablation or melting, and the relative pace and depth of breathing — directed by silent visual clues — changes according to the climatic conditions being enacted. After such an exercise in my introductory course, one student, slightly out of breath, remarked that he now knew ‘how a melting glacier feels.’”
  • David Manallack, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Monash University, in Australia, has first-year undergraduate pharmacy students line up in two rows of six, facing each other, arms out and parallel to the ground. The idea is to discuss the transport of drugs across membranes. “It’s a bit of a Goldilocks scenario where if I am too polar or too lipophilic I struggle to get through (or get stuck in) the membrane,” he writes. “With the right properties, a drug can cross membranes and get into the bloodstream. i.e. that is me walking through each line of the students. It is quite silly, but they like the active component to the lecture.”
  • Bonnie Smith Whitehouse, an English professor and director of the honors program at Belmont University, wrote about a course she created that revolves around outdoor walks. “During a sabbatical, I researched peripatetic philosophy and pedagogy, forest bathing, walking meditation, labyrinths, pilgrimages, marches, and techniques for outdoor education,” she writes. She renamed one of her writing courses “The Adventures of Writers Who Walk” and paired it with a required wellness class. “I’ve been teaching that class for eight years now, and we regularly learn about walkers/writers/thinkers/creators/activists, as well as compose on the forested and urban paths around our city.”
  • To immerse students in the scientific method, Ciara Reyes-Ton, who teaches introductory biology at Nashville State Community College, asks them to determine whether Double Stuf Oreos really have twice the filling as regular Oreos. “Together we design the experiment, coming up with a measurable and quantifiable way to do this, while identifying key components of what makes a strong experimental design and practicing developing their own hypothesis,” she writes. After the class has weighed their Oreos’ stuffing, they enter the data into an excel sheet, and generate scatter plots and graphs. “We discuss the distribution of data and events that may have led to variation in our data (differences in stuffing weight measured by different people — maybe some people removed more of the stuffing from their Oreos than others).” An added bonus: They get to take home the remaining Oreos afterward.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beth