Inside Higher Ed: Whose agenda?

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

July 2, 2011

Do gay and lesbian professors face discrimination from students? A new study – just published in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology – suggests that they do, with regard to perceptions of political bias.

The study (abstract available here) notes the difficulty of judging the legitimacy of professors’ claims that students don’t treat them the same as they do straight professors.

For the study, researchers presented an ethnically diverse group of 545 undergraduates at the University of Houston-Downtown with a course syllabus for a class called “Psychology of Human Sexuality”. The only difference in the syllabus presented to different students was that one version featured a professor whose brief autobiographical statement indicated being gay, and the other version featured an autobiographical statement identifying the professor as straight.

The students were then asked to evaluate the professors (based only on the syllabus review) on various factors, one of which was political bias. On average, the students found the syllabus to suggest a political agenda when the instructor was gay, but no agenda when the instructor was straight.

For another part of the study, students were given different versions of the syllabus that suggested more about the professors’ views – while keeping much of the course the same. A “conservative” syllabus contained the statement: “The Psychology of Human Sexuality emphasises sexual restraint and abstinence.” The liberal version contained the statement: “The Psychology of Human Sexuality emphasises acceptance and celebrates the variety of human sexual behaviour.”

Again, some versions had the instructor’s biographical statement indicating a gay or lesbian professor and others indicating a straight professor. The students identified the fictional gay conservative professors and the fictional liberal lesbian professors as biased – but not their straight counterparts who were using the same syllabuses. (For this part of the study, the “liberal” professors were depicted as female, and the “conservative” professors as male.)

The authors of the study are Kristin J. Anderson, associate professor of psychology at Houston-Downtown, and Melinda Kanner, interim assistant vice-president for academic affairs at the university. They write that their research is consistent with patterns in which people have been found more likely to consider women or members of racial minority groups politically biased for saying the same things that white men say (without a presumption of bias).

Anderson and Kanner write that issues of student views of bias (real or imagined) are important.

“Students’ early perceptions of professors are meaningful and can affect the way students approach a course and interact with the professor,” they write. “Gender- and sexuality-based preconceptions could have an impact on students’ own educational experiences, as well as experiences of professors who are lesbian and gay. That impact could be magnified when professors teach controversial, politically charged topics, such as human sexuality.”

Via email, Anderson said that the study raises questions about the ability of some students to learn from minority (broadly defined, including sexual orientation) professors. And since junior professors are frequently judged on the basis of student evaluations, Anderson said, the findings raise concerns about how fair students may be in their reviews.

“Even when there is no evidence of bias, students believe that minorities bring political baggage into the classroom, whereas whites, men and heterosexuals bring with them the cool heads of objectivity,” said Anderson.

She noted that the discrimination found was a “subtle form of discrimination” and was not a pattern of “overtly rejecting” gay and lesbian professors. She said she hoped that those who evaluate professors would pay attention to the findings. “This study can help supervisors interpret student evaluations of teaching and help them better understand a student’s allegation of bias,” she said.

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