Friday, May 09, 2008

Class and Evaluations

Deborah Merritt has written a very interesting article about student teaching evaluations. Deborah J. Merritt BIAS, THE BRAIN, AND STUDENT EVALUATIONS OF TEACHING 82 St. John’s L. Rev. 235. I have commented on it over on Moneylaw. An element of the article I did not discuss there deals with the impact of class on evaluations. Merritt suggests that race, gender and class can have an impact on student evaluations. Merritt first notes experiments in which frustrated drivers are more likely to “honk” at older beat up cars. These type of cars are stereotypically associated with lower classes. Then she writes:

“Law students do not honk at professors who displease them, but the same attitudinal differences can affect relationships in the classroom. The "horn honking" studies expose a cultural tendency to vent frustration or hostility more readily against low-status individuals than high-status ones. Socratic classrooms, challenging material, and intense competition for grades are at least as frustrating to students as a stalled car at an intersection. Law students may express that irritation more readily on evaluations of professors with low-status mannerisms than in their assessments of faculty with more high-status appearances. Indeed, the horn-honking studies may explain the surprising degree of overt hostility that law students express on evaluations of some minority faculty.Those evaluations are a type of classroom "honking." (notes deleted)

I am not sure how class manifests itself in a classroom exactly but, if it does, Merritt suggests that it may affect teaching evaluations. In fact, most of the article is about how non verbal cues affect evaluations while being unrelated to teaching effectiveness. Many of these cues can be “faked” as illustrated by the example she gives of the actor hired to pull out all the stops while saying nothing and who then is rated as wonderful.

My own perspective is very limited because like every other professor I have seen very few other law professors teach. Still I have a hunch that the class distinctions are not made merely by virtue of non verbal cues. The cues come in the form of making sure the students know the professor attended an elite law school, worked for a prestigious law firm, clerked for a well known judge or simple name dropping.

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