Thank you, Robert, for linking to Professor Major’s refreshingly honest piece admitting that professors are human beings who sometimes give in to their biases. One of the recurring features of both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed is the professor’s lament that student evaluations and — even worse — Rate My Professors are useless or counterproductive because they tend to give the best scores to attractive professors, likable professors, and/or professors who give easy As.
However, the question is not whether individuals are favorably inclined toward these attributes (of course they are), but whether it is even possible to construct a system of evaluation that is blind to such factors. Professor Major’s piece suggests that it is not. If our higher-education professionals are not dispassionately immune to human charms, who is? Professors like to cast themselves primarily as scholars and therefore less likely to allow personal feelings to cloud their judgment. In criticizing sites like Rate My Professors, they implicitly — and sometimes explicitly — place themselves above and beyond such petty considerations as “beauty” or “personality.”
Yet professors aren’t above and beyond. In tenure-denial case after tenure-denial case, it turns out that amorphous considerations like “collegiality” can have a decisive impact. Regarding grades, especially in subjective courses, anecdotes are legion of professors’ favorites receiving more latitude than classroom antagonists. And do we even need to go down the scandalous road of student-teacher romantic relationships?
Higher education is a very, very human process, with all the flaws, failures, and joys that entails. It is vital to acknowledge, understand, and attempt to control for the worst excesses of the human variables present, but it is destructive to believe that administrators can socially engineer humanity out of the system. The quest for utopia creates creates speech codes, administrative micromanagement of attitudes and behaviors, grotesque attempts at indoctrination, and ideological monocultures. After all, it is much easier to be “collegial” during election season when we all agree President Bush is a monster.