Voices – Themes and Shared Experience

Holding spaces for underrepresented faculty to connect and share barriers to success

1. Teaching as Cultural Taxation

There is a psychic toll of just deciding what to and not to put in class, what is worth the potential struggle, what isn’t…. You can’t pour from an empty cup. - VTA participant

Racial bias is widespread, and is expressed both consciously and unconsciously. DEI initiatives in academic settings tend to focus on biases expressed by faculty colleagues and administrators. Yet these programs are largely silent on a source of bias that our participants experienced: racism  directed at faculty from students. This is especially the case for faculty of color who teach diversity focused courses. The topics in these courses tend to be meaningful for the instructors teaching them, only to be met with hostility from the students learning them. When they are presented, some students become reactionary, voice discomfort, or express their distaste in student ratings. Examples of this include but are not limited to challenging the instructor’s expertise (“This is just your opinion because you are Latina”), accusing the instructor of being one-sided (“Dr. X is very opinionated and doesn’t present both sides”), and accusing the instructor of being prejudiced (“Dr. X clearly has a problem with  heterosexual white men”). Participants described reading comments like these as draining and taking a mental and emotional toll. This seemed particularly common in GE courses, and less so in upper division courses within the majors. In GE classes focused on race and racial justice (where students are disproportionately white) faculty face pushback from students about the content. As one participant notes, “I want to talk about this, but I don’t want to talk about it with folks who are having a transactional experience.” It is important to note that this problem is continuous, with several participants stating that they are teaching these same courses on race and racial justice each semester – “It is really hard to teach about race issues for people who just don’t want to be there.”

When asked for what could be done to alleviate this one participant said “Something tangible. The ability for people to buy out their time to work on projects that replenish them.” Others noted that they were simply tired of talking about it with minimal tangible action from SSU as an institution. “Do you really want to retain faculty from marginalized groups? Will you make changes around course assignments for GE classes being taught repetitively by the same faculty?”

2. Student ratings as reinforcing a Customer Service Model

“If you don’t make white students comfortable, you lose.” – VTA participant

Across all four sessions, Student Evaluations of Teaching Effectiveness (SETE’s) were by far the topic most often returned to for discussion. Recall the participant above who spoke of a perceived “transactional model” at SSU. Another participant agreed  – “The customer service model is real. And the race work that is done is filtered through the comfort of whiteness. I was not prepared for just how white it was.”

It was overwhelmingly expressed that SETE’s are over relied upon in evaluations, and that qualitative comments risk forming the basis for negative evaluations without any consideration of context. The research literature also unequivocally shows that student ratings are impacted by factors outside of instruction such as course type, discipline, modality, and racial and gender bias. When minority faculty also teach courses on topics such as racism, feminism, and bias, SETE anxiety is heightened, especially around the open-ended comments. Participants enthusiastically affirmed a “Self-Care for SETE’s” workshop that Matthew said that he could offer, to help faculty correctly contextualize and prepare for reading these.

In what ways are SETE’s being over relied upon?
Despite multiple measures of teaching effectiveness – peer observations, teaching focused professional development, curriculum design - several participants reported  SETE’s as central in their RTP evaluations. One way that this occurs is when student comments are taken at face value as instructional shortcomings without consideration of context and factors that are unrelated to instruction. Examples of factors affecting student comments include sensitive course content, unique classroom situations, bias toward the instructor, expectations of perfectionism, and entitlement. Yet in evaluations, these are rarely if ever considered, “In each class I feel like I am landing a plane on a tiny runway, and this context is missed.” The group concluded that student comments taken at face value, without careful consideration of context, reinforces that the “customer is always right” framing in evaluating teaching.

The discussion around SETE’s also moved organically into peer observations requiring further training and development. Peer observations are designed to offset many of the validity concerns and flaws of student ratings, but their quality varies across departments. Participants stated that peer observations vary in their usefulness in providing constructive feedback. According to one participant “More training is needed for peer observers, and those doing department RTP evaluations also should get more training,” Another candidate appreciated the approach taken by their department, “We meet with the observers in advance and discuss the focus of the class being observed and the effort we have put into that.” but this level of preparation was not reflected equally in participants’ observations of their home departments.

In sum, student ratings are a significant source of stress and anxiety for VTA participants. They appear to be inappropriately emphasized in RTP evaluations and overshadow more valid and reliable indices of teaching effectiveness. The framing of open-ended comments in RTP evaluations reinforces a customer service model, without consideration of context or likely racial/gender bias in them.

3. Bullying, Lack of Support, Lack of Respect

Some of our participants expressed a lack of support, advice and mentoring in their departments. Support in the RTP process in particular was perceived by some to be woefully lacking – although other participants said they felt very much supported by their departments. Hence, although the experiences varied, some of the issues raised were troubling.

VTA participants reported  instances of power-based interactions with senior faculty. One participant shared that a senior colleague would attend their office hour with directives to complete labor-intensive tasks under the guise of “advice”. Requests felt more like orders, especially when the tasks were framed as “advice for how to survive here.” As a result, this participant began avoiding their own office and was in some sense relieved by the COVID requirements to be off campus. This kind of treatment from senior faculty has taken an emotional toll on some participants. According to one participant, “In my department at my previous institution, I had great advisors and people who guided my early academic career. So this has been crushing.”

Lack of Mentoring, Support, and Respect.

“There is such a need for mentorship, but senior faculty of color are tapped out. So we have to create mentorship space for ourselves and are tasked with retaining ourselves” ~VTA participant

The need for mentoring, support, and shared spaces for faculty was frequently discussed. The needs were broadly defined. Instruction on department-specific tasks such as advising, curriculum, and the RTP process was uneven. In terms of receiving mentorship, it appears to be spotty and inconsistent among the departments represented. Some participants were paired junior faculty with mentors outside of their department along related areas of interest. Others received mentorship from within their department, and others received no mentoring at all.

Participants also expressed a general sense of a lack of respect toward their expertise and toward them as professionals. For example, one participant said that their expertise and scholarship are frequently labeled by whichever “DEI” term is currently en vogue– “There is a lack of respect for what we do. I often get people saying ‘Do you do anti-racist work?’ I don’t subscribe to this label, and my work predates the label.”

Another example of disrespect arose around indirect messages that faculty are expendable. One participant heard that an administrator had said that “the university is looking at every person who leaves as money saved because they don’t have to pay their salary. We are not looked at as an asset, especially in this budgetary climate.”

Not surprisingly, salaries and housing were mentioned as significant barriers to retention. That said, participants emphasized that while these are clear problems, they do not constitute the total problem - “While salaries are important, you can offset a lot of things by improving the quality of campus life for folks” Suggestions included but are not limited to affordable housing near or on campus, increased mental health counseling sessions, subsidizing public transportation and parking, and tickets to music events and other campus events. It was noted that faculty are often encouraged to “support SSU students” by attending campus events (often on weeknights and weekends), but are also required to pay for admission to them.

4. Workload, Service, and Cultural Taxation: Too Much and Never Enough

My brown face as a public service point -a classroom, leading an event – does a lot for this university alone.” ~VTA participant

Amado Padilla defines cultural taxation as “the burden of additional responsibilities placed on underrepresented faculty because of their race and ethnicity” (Padilla, 1994). Discussions across multiple sessions revealed significant cultural taxation. The VTA group indicated that identity-related service expectations, both explicit and unspoken, accumulate and burden. Guest lectures, attending cultural graduation ceremonies, task forces, recruiting students, mentoring students, diversifying curriculum, speaking at student events – these are time consuming, labor-intensive activities. Cultural taxation involves performing such tasks in addition to current teaching, service and research loads without recognition or compensation. In the RTP process, the explicit or implied message that faculty receive is that these activities “do not count” as meeting criteria for university and community service. In some instances, evaluators state that these activities are “appreciated”, but that they “look forward to more sustained service obligations on governance committees”. Others reported these contributions as being ignored altogether. This labor was recounted as significant, hidden, and dismissed as insufficient to qualify as meaningful service in RTP. Evaluations directed participants to join (or in some cases lead) faculty governance committees all while continuing to be encouraged to serve in these culturally taxing capacities. Overall, VTA participants indicate that what is implied is that this work is appreciated but devalued, and not sufficient to meet criteria for university service.

Added demands around student advising was another example of expected work but insufficient service. Faculty spoke of an implicit assumption that they must be available for advising and mentoring of students of color. This is a considerable time commitment, and can be emotionally taxing in ways that faculty are not prepared for - “I am trained as an educator, not a counselor.” This is another instance where participants especially felt this kind of student mentorship is not counted as service in the RTP process, and as already reported, conveys to the faculty that their work is not valued.